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16 December 2021

French travel restrictions won’t keep Omicron out – but they will disrupt holiday plans

Travel bans have been tried before - they didn't stop the virus before and they won't do so now.

By Ido Vock

France has announced a strict ban on most travel from the UK in response to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 in Britain.

Non-residents and non-EU nationals arriving from the UK will need to prove an urgent reason for travel to France, such as the funeral of a close relative. Tourism or business travel will not be permitted. In addition, both vaccinated and unvaccinated travellers will need to present a negative test and isolate for at least two days on arrival, provided they test negative then.

The French government says the new rules are necessary to limit the “seeding” of the Omicron variant by travellers from the UK. “According to the British government’s own words, the UK will be faced with a ‘tsunami’ linked to the Omicron variant in the coming days,” the French government wrote in a statement.

The ban on most travel will disrupt the holiday plans of thousands of Brits preparing to travel to France for Christmas and New Year. They also mean a second Christmas apart for the hundreds of thousands of families straddling the Channel. Around 160,000 French citizens are estimated to be resident in the UK, and at least around 148,000 British citizens are believed to live in France.

[See also: Travel bans won’t defeat Omicron]

Tony, a 29-year-old from the Nice region living in Cambridge, says he was looking forward to spending Christmas with his mother after not having been able to travel home in December 2020. This year he will travel to France on 23 December, though under the new rules he will still be in isolation on Christmas Day. “My mum lives alone and usually only sees me at the holidays. I can’t stand the thought of her alone in her flat at Christmas,” he said.

France’s travel regulations will likely do little to limit the spread of Omicron. As of 15 December there were 170 confirmed cases of the new variant in France, with the true number certain to be higher and rising. The ban will prevent some new seeding events but will probably not buy France more than a week or two, according to scientists I spoke to. Just as France’s travel ban imposed on the UK to contain the Alpha variant failed to prevent its spread, these new rules will likely fail too.

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That travel from the UK, a non-EU country, was banned while entry from Denmark, which is in the EU and where Omicron is accounting for a high proportion of Covid cases, indicates that the move is partly a political calculation rather than strictly an epidemiological one. (By contrast, Italy has tightened its entry restrictions to apply mostly to arrivals from both EU and non-EU countries.)

That governments are still reaching for the tools they used with limited effectiveness in 2020 suggests that the professed goal of “living with the virus” is still a long way off.

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