The Guardian view on foreign travel: holidays mustn’t jeopardise progress at home | Editorial

Improvements at home will soon lead to more Britons venturing away. Until now, foreign travel has been allowed only under exemptions such as those for business or on compassionate grounds. Now, with the drop in Covid rates thanks to the winter lockdown and the rollout of vaccines, Boris Johnson plans to permit more journeys. While the prime minister has urged caution, he has said that he expects “some openings up” from 17 May, when a new risk-based traffic light system will be introduced. A “green list” of foreign destinations for quarantine-free travel and return is expected as early as 7 May. The EU has confirmed that travellers from countries with low infection rates and the fully vaccinated will be able to visit the bloc from June.

For now, the list is likely to include only a handful of EU countries – though there is pressure from Conservative MPs and the travel industry to broaden it. Even so, this is risky. Globally, cases are on the rise. Vaccines are not being shared equitably. India has shown how suddenly infections can surge in places that appeared to have escaped the worst. Rates in some parts of Europe remain high. There is growing concern about new variants, which may be more resistant to vaccines.

The danger is not merely theoretical. The premature reopening of travel was a significant contributor to the cases seen in the UK at the end of last summer. A cross-party group of MPs has warned of complacency and urged the government to discourage leisure travel. While some experts feel reassured by lowered rates in Europe, and progress in vaccination, others are not. Wealthy European nations are gambling that they can build a wall around themselves and keep out infections from elsewhere. But the wall is only as strong as its weakest brick. If one country is less effective at tracking new cases and especially variants – or acting on that information – it puts others at risk. The EU says it will pull the “emergency brake” if it needs to, and the British government says it will redesignate destinations as required. But it took days to put India on the red list, even as its Covid cases soared.

Some have strong and understandable reasons to want to travel abroad. Many people have been separated from their loved ones for more than a year, with no hope of seeing parents or siblings. (It is baffling and enraging that, meanwhile, second-home owners can fly off to deal with their property.) Others long to get away from it all, after a difficult and dispiriting year stuck within the same four walls. That is understandable. But an annual foreign holiday is a desirable luxury – not an essential.

The group of MPs has rightly urged that people should be discouraged from holidaying abroad, and the management of airports and immigration procedures improved as a matter of priority. It warns that airports are already becoming a breeding ground, with different planeloads mixing in overcrowded arrivals halls. Reportedly, UK Border Force staff also identify more than 100 fraudulent test certificates each day. It is little use placing someone under hotel quarantine if they have already infected others who are told they can mix freely once home.

Overhauling these procedures is urgent, before the long queues become still longer. This government has too often thrown away hard-won progress against coronavirus. It would be horrifying if the last year’s efforts were squandered through wishful thinking again.

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