At the end of Friday’s Downing Street briefing, the Transport Secretary said he could never have imagined he’d be responsible for locking down travel, adding he’d been ‘looking forward for a very long time’, to the day he could announce international trips would resume.
As it transpired, of course, the green list comprised few destinations that agents could sell, once again dashing hopes of a busy weekend for bookings. Penguins are cute, but there’s not much call for package holidays to the Falkland Islands.
Nevertheless, the Downing Street briefing did provide the answers to a few questions agents or customers might have.
#1 Why is the green list so small?
Mr Shapps acknowledged the success of the vaccine and the UK’s currently low COVID rates, but insisted the Government is moving cautiously, with a gradual reopening of travel, in respect of the ‘sacrifices people have made’.
“It would betray what everyone has gone through for the last year, if we were to throw it all away and just say: ‘Well, we’ll add some holiday destinations on’. We cannot do that,” he insisted.
He added: “The reason there aren’t more places on the list is that there aren’t more places that are in the fortunate position that the UK has got itself in. The rest of the world needs more time to catch up before we will be able to open up those locations.”
#2 What about Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?
This has been a major concern, with the Scottish Passenger Agents’ Association (SPAA), among others, urging clarification.
On Friday morning, Mr Shapps held a call with the devolved administrations, while all four Chief Medical Officers have agreed the principals of the traffic light system.
The Transport Secretary said ‘by and large’ he expects each devolved nation will follow the same rules, but, because of elections in Wales and Scotland, it may take ‘a few days’ for clarification.
“The science is the science and, since we are all working from the same traffic light system, it stands to reason that it will be broadly similar in design,” he said.
#3 What’s the criteria behind the traffic light system?
It’s more sophisticated than last year’s system, and Grant Shapps said the methodology and data behind which countries are on the green list would be made public.
He said: “Last year, the Joint Biosecurity Centre used pretty blunt information. It was about the number of cases per 100,000 over a seven-day period.
“This year it’s about not just the prevalence of cases, it’s about the variants of concern, it’s about the ability of a country to test, the quality of their data, how good their genome sequencing is and reassuringly, all of that is going to be published this year. I think that will be helpful for everyone.”
#4 Why is the Government insisting all returning Brits take a PCR test even if vaccinated?
In addition to helping stop the spread of COVID, PCR testing on leaving the destination, and on arrival in the UK, helps with research, Dr Jenny Harries, Chief Executive of the new UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) explained.
“They are contributing not just to UK knowledge about the growth of variants from different countries but to the global knowledge, so the whole world learns to protect themselves better,” she said.
#5 Will it all end in tiers again?
There was chaos last summer, when regional tiers came into effect, creating confusion among holidaymakers who wanted to know if they could cross tiers to get to the airport.
Mass testing and the vaccine rollout makes it unlikely the Government will have to introduce a localised approach this year.
Mr Shapps said: “I very much hope that we’re not going back to those bad old days of very high levels of enormous prevalence.”
#6 When was the last time Grant Shapps used a travel agent?
Quite a while ago, judging by his comment about ‘what people would have called travel agents’?
It prompted a huge outcry on social media with many agents tweeting him photos of their high-street premises or home-working offices.
If, on Friday evening, Mr Shapps didn’t know agents still existed, he does now.