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UK will introduce new international travel rules beginning in October 2021

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Beginning 4 October 2021, the UK’s “green/amber/red” international border system for managing COVID risk will be replaced with a system where there will be only “red” countries and “the rest of the world”
  • The list of requirements for fully vaccinated travellers from “rest of the world” countries will be much less cumbersome (e.g., these travellers will not have to take a pre-departure COVID test)
  • The government’s selection of which vaccines are to be accepted is sparking outrage in Latin America, Africa, and India
  • Eight countries have dropped off the “red” list as of 22 September, including some important student source markets for UK educators

The UK is moving to a new international border protocol in terms of which travellers – from which countries – will be permitted entry under specific conditions, including the type of vaccine they have received.

The current (and contentious) “traffic light” system of green/amber/red countries (i.e., where “green” has meant the fewest border restrictions/rules, “amber” the middle ground,” and “red” the practical equivalent of a ban) will be replaced with a simpler system where there will be some “red” countries and then then the “rest of the world.” Travellers from “the rest of the world” will not need to quarantine upon arrival in the UK and those who are fully vaccinated will also see some relaxation in testing requirements.

From 4 October, fully vaccinated “rest of the world” travellers will no longer be required to take pre-departure COVID tests nor Day 8 COVID tests. They will, however, still need to book and pay for a Day 2 COVID test as well as to fill out passenger locator forms at any point during the 48 hours preceding their arrival in the UK.

As for unvaccinated travellers from “rest of the world” countries, they will still have to submit to pre-departure tests as well as Day 2 and Day 8 PCR tests, and they will still have to quarantine for 10 days.

Meanwhile, travellers from red list countries remain virtually barred from entering the UK – but eight countries have been moved off the red list since 22 September: Bangladesh, Egypt, Maldives, Oman, Pakistan, Turkey, Sri Lanka, and Kenya. The current, and regularly updated, red list can be found here.

Grant Shapps, the UK’s Transport Secretary, issued this media statement:

“Today’s changes mean a simpler, more straightforward system. One with less testing and lower costs, allowing more people to travel, see loved ones or conduct business around the world while providing a boost for the travel industry.

Public health has always been at the heart of our international travel policy and with more than 8 in 10 adults vaccinated in the UK, we are now able to introduce a proportionate updated structure that reflects the new landscape.”

Some backlash against vaccine rules

According to the UK government, these are the rules around how border officials will judge whether incoming travellers are fully vaccinated:

“From 4 am Monday 4 October, you will qualify as fully vaccinated if you are vaccinated either:

  • Under an approved vaccination programme in the UK, Europe, USA or UK vaccine programme overseas OR
  • With a full course of the Oxford/AstraZeneca, Pfizer BioNTech, Moderna or Janssen vaccines from a relevant public health body in Australia, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Bahrain, Brunei, Canada, Dominica, Israel, Japan, Kuwait, Malaysia, New Zealand, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan or the United Arab Emirates (UAE).”

Notably, travellers who have been fully vaccinated in Africa, Latin America, and India with the same vaccines as those accepted from the US, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, or an EU country will not be deemed “fully vaccinated.” This will mean they will have to quarantine for 10 days upon arrival in the UK.

Outrage is mounting over these seemingly discriminatory rules. One Latin American diplomat told The Guardian,

“How can a Pfizer or Moderna or AstraZeneca vaccine that is administered [in Latin America] not be sufficient for someone to be allowed in? I just don’t see how this can be acceptable. I simply cannot get my head around it. I cannot explain what is behind this – I just know that it is very, very, very unfair.”

A West African diplomat noted the implications:

“It’s not even the discrimination that concerns me the most, it’s the message it sends out. All around the world we’re struggling with vaccine hesitancy. There’s all sorts of fake news. When you say, ‘We are not going to accept the vaccine from Africa’, you lend credence to these kinds of theories. It’s only going to create a situation where it allows the pandemic to be prolonged.”

For UK educators, the decision to not accept vaccines given in Latin America, India, and Africa will also be frustrating given the importance of key sending markets in those regions.

Lateral flow tests to be introduced

Later in October, the UK government expects to introduce a new perk for fully vaccinated travellers: they will be able access a cheaper lateral flow test on Day 2 rather than the more expensive PCR test in place now. This will be a further boost to the UK travel industry as it will reduce the barrier of cost for visitors hoping to fly to the UK. Experts say that the expense of travelling to the UK, including testing, as well as the confusing “green/amber/red” system that has in place, has been detrimental to the recovery of the UK’s airline and travel industry. Stewart Wingate, the CEO of London’s Gatwick Airport, told Canada’s CBC News, “We’re only running at about half the level of the European airports.”

Some scientists are less enthused about the plans for the PCR test to be replaced by the lateral flow test, because PCR tests allow for the genomic sequencing needed to detect whether a COVID infection is caused by a new variant. Alan McNally, a professor in microbial evolutionary genomics, told The Guardian that,

“The devil’s in the detail in this and I would really hope there will be a very strong mandate that any lateral flow positive test from travel have to get a confirmatory PCR test because in my opinion we still [need] that genome level surveillance of COVID cases being introduced into the UK from abroad.”

The timing of this test replacement is meant to coincide with people returning to the UK for school half-term dates. There is some concern, however, about whether the switch to lateral flow tests can happen soon enough for the return to school given a potential supply shortage of these tests.

For additional background, please see:

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