The new travel traffic light system, announced by the British government to highlight the level of COVID-19 risk in foreign countries, has provided a tiny glimmer of light for the travel industry. But is it enough to reboot the sector and how will travel insurance play out when there are obvious risks at play?
From 17 May 2021 the travel industry was allowed to re-open in the UK and it’s no longer considered illegal to travel abroad. In fact, it is not illegal to travel to either an ‘amber’ or ‘red’ country, but you do need to follow the government guidelines when you return to the UK. It is also highly likely that any standard travel insurance would not provide cover should you become unwell in a country that was deemed red or amber at the start of your trip.
The new traffic light system has caused many desperate travellers to book instant flights to Portugal - the only country currently on the ‘green’ list that seemed to be actually possible for many. Without a doubt, this has increased the nation’s confidence in booking foreign travel overall and the industry experienced an immediate surge in holiday bookings.
What each colour means
In basic terms, the traffic light system works like this:
- Green: COVID-19 risk low in this country. No isolation requirements when you return to the UK but you must complete a passenger location form, provide a negative test result prior to travel and take a sequencing test on day two after arrival.
- Amber: Quarantine is required at home for 10 days, you must complete the passenger location form, provide a negative test prior to travel and take a test on day 2 and day 8 after arrival. Travellers will also have the option to test to release at day 5 to end the quarantine early.
- Red: Only British and Irish citizens will be allowed to enter from a red country and they must stay in government-approved quarantine facilities for 10 days.
Challenges for the industry
It can be confusing for insurers, travel agents and tour operators when to consider cancelling holidays, when to offer refunds and when to allow the holiday to go ahead as it is not illegal to fly to any of the destinations on any of the lists. How do they decide what to do and when to act? Many of the larger companies are offering COVID protection as an add-on to their holiday bookings to encourage sales. My view is we must adhere to the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) advice which is referred to in most travel insurance policies and if the advice is not to travel to that destination then the customer is entitled to a refund or can be offered an alternative holiday.
Matters are complicated even further due to the traffic light system almost having sub-tiers within each colour category. For example, when it comes to ‘green’ countries, what happens if that country is re-categorized to amber between the time of booking and the time of travel? This then creates a risk for tour operators as to whether or not the holiday should go ahead. A country changing from green to amber will cause disruption to many who do not want to isolate for the required period when they return to the UK, either due to work commitments or other personal reasons.
What happens when it’s announced that a country will move from green to amber while holidaymakers are already abroad? It then becomes a scramble, yet again, to get them home. With the FCDO advising against leisure trips to countries on the amber list, this clearly poses some ambiguity for both holidaymakers and travel operators as countries are inevitably and periodically re-categorised depending on the changing risk.
Another issue for both customers and tour operators is the additional costs of the PCR tests. These can cost £120 or more, which for a family of four is an extra £480 on top of the cost of their holiday.
Most tour operators are offering deals to encourage customers to still book holidays by teaming up with test providers to offer a reduction on the cost of the PCR tests, if they book with them. The savings being offered are ranging but I have seen them for as much as 50% off the regular cost. There are also the individual test providers who are offering online test kits for £65.
Decisions, decisions …
With the pandemic still being very much alive and spreading, even with the high vaccination rate in the UK, the risk of a third wave and the live risk of the introduction of new variants remains. This will be at the forefront of politicians’ minds and I would strongly encourage anyone travelling abroad to ensure that they have travel insurance with COVID-19 coverage included, and to continually check the FCDO advice regularly.
The good news is that most travel insurance policies include some form of cancellation cover should you test positive for COVID before you travel, but it seems that insurers have altered their policies so that they will not pay out if the government announce another lockdown.
With the variant originating out of India still circulating and increasing in numbers globally, the risk of another lockdown cannot be ignored and holiday makers will need to think carefully before booking trips.
On the positive, package holidays generally remain the safest way of booking should a lockdown occur, as these types of bookings usually protect the customer and entitle them to a full refund if the tour operator is forced to cancel the holiday due to travel restrictions.
For customers who choose to book the elements of their holiday separately and free from the package travel regulations, they should think carefully and check every element of their own self serviced holiday including car hire, accommodation and flights so they are clear on the circumstances in which they will be entitled to a refund. It is likely that customers will continue to have a hard time recovering from airlines as they are only obliged to refund the customer if the airline has had to cancel the flight. In other words, if the flight operates but you can’t or don’t want to fly due to restrictions, you won’t be entitled to a refund from the airline.
What about the vaccine? It seems that it will not be mandatory at the moment to be fully vaccinated to travel, although some holiday firms such as Saga have confirmed that their customers need to have both doses at least 14 days before travel - an understandable requirement for the safety of their particular customer demographic.
There is also still the possibility of COVID passports which are being considered not only in the UK but in Europe and further afield, and if they do come into force it is not likely to be effective until summer. Another issue to consider is vaccines for children (those under the age of 18) - will there be one and will it happen before the summer holidays? And again, will this cause disruptions for families who want to travel if not all family members have been vaccinated?
There are many unanswered questions as it currently stands. Time will deliver us the answers of course. For now, I personally will be keeping a close eye on the FCDO advice when it comes to decisions for me and my family.
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Head of Travel & Casualty, Crawford Legal Services
Disclaimer: This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. For any legal advice please contact CLS directly.