Will holidays be back to the mask-free, pre-pandemic normal this summer?

·10 min read
travel holiday spain 2022 restrictions covid - Getty
travel holiday spain 2022 restrictions covid - Getty

On the face of it, the direction of travel when it comes to leaving behind the sanitised pandemic landscape and returning to the sunlit uplands of our beloved “old normal” seems one-way. Mask mandates and Covid passports are being discarded, as are testing and isolation requirements. Head to your local boozer on Friday night and your experience may well be exactly the same as it was in 2019.

But leave British shores behind and the “new normal” is still very much in ascendancy. Masks remain a requirement to fly. Trips to many of our favourite destinations still require a test. Covid passports are becoming increasingly ingrained across Europe. Unvaccinated travellers remain banned from dozens of countries. Some places still haven’t opened their borders at all.

As things stand, a summer holiday in France is unavailable to unvaccinated Brits, while those who can go are expected to take a test before they arrive, wear a mask whenever indoors (and outdoors in some busy areas), and flash a QR code to enter most venues. It’s hardly the relaxing break of pre-pandemic times.

So when will holidays return to normal? Will Britain’s bonfire of the restrictions this week trigger a domino effect across the rest of Europe? We asked a clutch of Covid experts and travel industry insiders for their verdict.

The consensus appears to be that yes, assuming there are no dramatic epidemiological setbacks, most other countries will follow England’s lead. How quickly that will happen is another matter.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if everything is largely back to normal in the summer, but then I also wouldn’t be surprised if we still face a raft of different restrictions,” said Paul Nuki, The Telegraph’s Global Health Security Editor. “This reflects the whole uncertainty that remains about how the virus might develop between now and then. Most likely, however, is things continuing as they are now, with lots of cases but not a lot of damage in terms of hospitalisations. People will feel relaxed, and that the worst is over, and the restrictions will reflect that.”

Will testing for travel remain?

Testing should become increasingly rare. David Livermore, Professor of Medical Microbiology at UEA, praised the UK’s decision this week to scrap all tests for vaccinated arrivals and ease the rules for those who haven’t been jabbed.

“For the UK, pre- and post-travel testing requirements are finished,” he said. “They failed to prevent the entry and spread of either omicron or delta, and there is no reason to suppose that they’d prevent the entry of future variants. For all its faults, the UK Government is closer to understanding this than are many foreign governments. So, you may still face testing demands according to where you’re travelling to, but not for coming home.”

To avoid the cost and hassle of testing this summer, Europe might be your best bet.

Paul Charles, CEO of travel consultancy The PC Agency, believes testing to visit most European destinations will be scrapped by Easter – for vaccinated travellers at least. “Many countries will follow the UK and abandon travel rules in the coming weeks as they learn to live with Covid. For once the industry has much to be positive about,” he said. “Border controls will be a shadow of their former selves this summer. European destinations especially want to get back to pre-Covid visitor numbers, to help their economies, so I’m not expecting any entry restrictions to remain in place for much of Europe, as well as the Caribbean, after April.”

Fiona Charrington, managing director of Martin Randall Travel, agreed that the hurdles for most European holidays would soon be jettisoned. She said: “There are already some countries that do not require testing for the fully vaccinated, and it is likely others will follow suit in the coming weeks or months. The majority of our tours are within Europe and we fully expect restrictions to ease in the coming months as omicron recedes. Elsewhere, I imagine they will remain in place for longer.”

So which destinations will retain stricter travel restrictions as 2022 wears on?

Asia and Australasia look likely to remain cautious, said Prof. Francois Balloux, director of the UCL Genetics Institute, who also agreed that England’s path is the correct one.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that travel restrictions are harmful, and largely useless at this stage of the pandemic, and it seems the UK now realises this,” he said, predicting that “more liberal governments like Sweden and Switzerland” would be among the first to “turn the page” in the same way as the UK. Indeed, Switzerland, like Britain, recently scrapped the requirement for most arrivals to submit to any tests.

He added: “Other countries in a different situation, such as New Zealand, Australia, Japan, China and Taiwan [all of which have remained closed for the duration of the pandemic], will keep them in place. For how long? That’s the interesting question.”

Opinions on this were divided. Bharat Gadhoke, head of commercial at the Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO), said he expected Australia – which postponed its tentative reopening after the emergence of omicron – and New Zealand – which has just announced new restrictions over a cluster of just nine cases – to remain closed to most tourists. However, Nuki reckoned the Asia/Pacific region will be “largely open” by the summer, with the possible exception of China. “We’ll know more about them after the Winter Olympics,” he said.

Balloux added: “China, where it was already getting increasingly difficult to move around before the pandemic, has big issues with its healthcare system, which is partly driving its Covid strategy. A fast return to open borders there seems unlikely.”

John Grant, senior analyst at aviation number crunchers OAG, said big questions remain not just about China, but also Japan, which – unlike Australia, for example – hasn’t even mapped out a plan to reopen. “It is a worry both for the regional markets but also destinations in Europe which normally see many visitors from these countries spending lots of money,” he explained.

Will masks continue to be required on planes and in public?

So test- and quarantine-free travel to most of the world should be possible, for vaccinated people anyway, by the summer. But what about the wider holiday experience? Britons might want to think twice before cutting up their masks – they look certain to remain a requirement for flying this summer, and probably demanded on the ground.

Prof. Livermore said: “The evidence that masks make any real difference to the spread of Covid is scant. And if – from Thursday – there’s no requirement to wear one on a bus, why should it be demanded on a plane? Yet many countries cling to the notion that masks prevent infection. I suspect they’ll linger uselessly through this year in many jurisdictions.”

Prof. Balloux agreed that masks would remain on planes as part of the Covid “hangover”, adding: “While it’s hard to see what such a measure can realistically achieve at this stage, one could say the same about aviation’s 100ml liquid rule, which has been in force for 15 years now.”

Sarah Knapton, The Telegraph’s Science Editor, concurred: “I wouldn’t be surprised to see airlines continue with masks throughout this year to make passengers feel safer, although there is little evidence they do much good on planes.”

The requirement to wear a mask in shops and restaurants appears more likely to be dropped, depending on your destination. Gadhoke said: “Certainly in some places masks will remain, despite England moving away from mandating them. I hope it will be minimal and eventually become a personal decision.”

Those hoping for a mask-free holiday would be wise to look to Scandinavia – where their use has been far less commonplace – or certain US states, rather than the likes of Spain, Italy and France, where they are currently required even in some outdoor settings.

Are Covid passports going anywhere?

Covid passports are also expected to persist for much of the year, particularly in countries already using especially harsh versions, such as France, Germany, Austria and Italy. But not forever, as some fear.

“I don’t subscribe to the conspiratorial notion that Covid passes are about control, I think they will be kept while they are deemed necessary and then removed. They are there to build confidence as much as anything,” said Nuki.

“Since the vaccine doesn’t guarantee that anyone won’t catch and even pass on Covid, I don’t see vaccine passports or restrictions for unvaccinated people lasting,” said Edward Paine, founder of tour operator Last Frontiers.

Prof. Livermore added: “I don’t think they’re sustainable. The vaccines are vitally useful for preventing severe infection in the vulnerable, but they’re too ‘leaky’ and briefly effective in terms of preventing infection and transmission to be the basis of a robust passport system. Huge numbers of the doubly- and triply-vaccinated are now being infected. And, as both Sir Andrew Pollard of the JCVI and Marco Cavaleri of the European Medicines Agency have rightly said, you can’t keep vaccinating everyone every few months. For the same reasons, travel restrictions for the unvaccinated will become less and less sustainable.”

What restrictions can unvaccinated Britons expect?

Such hurdles for unjabbed sunseekers is one reason why travel won’t return to 2019 levels this year, according to OAG’s John Grant. “I’m expecting a strong summer, but still around 10-12% below 2019 levels,” he said. “I expect restrictions to remain on unvaccinated people, probably for the next couple of years, and the market will be smaller as a result.”

Tour operators fear it could be several years before the market returns to its pre-pandemic vibrancy. According to the latest UNWTO Panel of Experts survey, a majority of tourism professionals around the world (64%) expect international arrivals to return to 2019 levels in 2024 or later, while 32% believe this will happen in 2023 and only 4% point to this year 2022.

Where will return to 'normal' first?

The overall picture is one of normality returning, but more slowly in some destinations. “In some southern European countries, such as Italy and Spain, I think they have been so traumatised over the last two years that it might take longer to get back to normal,” said Prof. Balloux. “Also, the Covid debate is not as open in these countries; there has been little but blanket support for extreme restrictions, particularly in the media.”

Prof Livermore added: “Europe will be patchy, not least because of how far some countries have gone – however pointlessly – down the path of internal vaccine mandates and passports. Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, plus Portugal, will open early, but France, Italy and Austria will be late.”

And beyond Europe? Paine advised travellers to look first to the countries that decided early on to live with Covid and keep their economies as open as possible. “In our specialist region that would include Mexico, Brazil, Costa Rica, Colombia, and Ecuador,” he said.

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