International travel rules will be relaxed on 19 June as part of the wider scrapping of social distancing rules and masks. Transport secretary Grant Shapps told the House of Commons that those entering England from green and amber nations will not be expected to self-isolate — provided they are fully vaccinated.
In practice, what this means is that British summer holidays have been given the go ahead. France, Spain, Portugal and Italy are all on the amber travel list. Currently, the rules state that returning travellers must isolate for ten days, as well as complete a day two and day eight test. That second test has also been scrapped.
The crucial point is that the relaxation is only for those that have been fully vaccinated. While limited to international travel, the policy still introduces a degree of immuno-privilege. What happens to those who are medically unable to get the vaccine? And how much longer will the policy of isolation for the returning unvaccinated last?
From a public health perspective, though, the policy seems sensible — fully vaccinated travellers are less likely to catch Covid and less likely to pass it on — but there is also a behavioural element. The offer of unimpeded international travel will likely serve as an incentive to those who are hesitant about getting the jab, a group that is disproportionally younger.
The flip side is that few under-thirties have been fully vaccinated. Health officials only began offering jabs to twenty-somethings last month, while the recommended gap between the first and second dose has only just been cut from twelve weeks to eight. Given Shapps was keen to stress full vaccination only occurs 14 days after the second dose, it seems likely that most under-thirties won't be able to enjoy this latest round of relaxations for at least a few weeks after 19 June.
Regardless of the details of the policy, the decision to relax travel restrictions is a sign that government thinking has changed. Ministers have publicly predicted that infections could reach 100,000 a day — a third higher than at the January peak.
The difference is hospitalisations and deaths. At the January peak, the UK was seeing nearly 1,300 deaths a day. Yesterday there were 33. The decision to loosen travel rules — particularly given the threat of new varients — suggests that Covid is now seen as a manageable public health problem rather than a crisis that could overwhelm the health service.