Covid-19: People can start thinking about foreign travel – Shapps

People in England can start thinking about booking foreign holidays again this summer, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has said.

But he said the cost of the Covid tests required needed to be driven down, amid criticism from the travel industry. 

Mr Shapps has also given more detail on the traffic light system which will see countries graded on their risk.

Passengers will have to take the tests before leaving and on returning – even from low-risk “green” countries.

There will be a watch list for countries that could go from green to amber.

Announcing the findings of the Global Travel Taskforce set up by the government to examine how leisure travel could be reopened safely after lockdown, Mr Shapps said foreign holidays would resume on 17 May at the earliest.

He said for the first time in months he was not advising against booking foreign trips.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “This is the first time I’m able to come on and say I’m not advising against booking foreign holidays. 

“Yes, you’ll want to check what the situation is in two or three weeks’ time when that list – the green, amber, red, is produced – you’ll want to know that you’ve got good holiday insurance and flexible flights and the rest of it. 

“But for the first time I think there is light at the end of the tunnel and we’ll be able to restart international travel, including cruises by the way, in a safe and secure way, knowing about the vaccinations, everything we know about the disease this year, and of course that abundance of caution – having the tests in place.”

The traffic light system will grade foreign destinations as being:

  • Green: Passengers will not need to quarantine on return, but must take a pre-departure test, as well as a PCR test on return to the UK
  • Amber: Travellers will need to quarantine for 10 days, as well as taking a pre-departure test and two PCR tests
  • Red: Passengers will have to pay for a 10-day stay in a managed quarantine hotel, as well as a pre-departure test and two PCR tests

Mr Shapps told BBC Breakfast the use of PCR tests – those needing to be sent to a lab – enabled scientists to detect potential variants of concern.

But he said he was “concerned” about the cost of the tests, adding that the government was committed to driving down the price of these by working with the private sector.

The transport secretary said the government was also looking at the possibility of allowing people to take cheaper lateral flow tests before travelling. 

The government has not yet said which countries will be green, amber or red – but said it would do so by early May. 

Mr Shapps said countries would be categorised based on level of infections and vaccinations, variants of concern and the quality of their genetic sequencing.

He said this list would be kept under constant review and that he was hopeful European countries would be upgraded as their vaccination rates improve. 

Nearly 40 countries are currently on the UK government’s current red list of countries from which travel is banned, except for British and Irish nationals and those with residence rights in the UK.

The rules will be reviewed at the end of June to see whether any measures can be rolled back, the government said.

Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said the government had not outlined the traffic light system in detail and criticised the release of the plans while the House of Commons was not sitting. 

He told BBC Breakfast: “The government has spoken about factors like vaccination rates, infection rates, the position with variants and also about the level of genomic sequencing. But I’ve no idea what the levels of each of those are for the government to place countries into, whether it’s the green category, amber or red.” 

The first ministers of Scotland and Wales have both already argued that 17 May will be too early for foreign holidays to resume.

Northern Ireland has not yet announced its plans, but its chief medical officer has said it would be “premature” to book a foreign summer trip.

At the moment, almost anyone seeking to travel to England must first take a coronavirus testbefore departure and then two tests when they arrive, bought through a private provider. Children under 11 are exempt.

Consumer group Which? estimated that each PCR test – which is just one of the tests needed – could cost about £120 per person.

However, the government said it would work with airlines, travel firms and the test providers to see whether prices can be reduced. That could involve cheaper tests, or the government providing the pre-departure tests.

2px presentational grey line
Analysis box by Caroline Davies, transport correspondent

Today’s report is not the grand reopening many in the travel industry wanted. 

There is real worry, particularly among lower cost carriers, that around £100 per person for a test will dissuade travellers from booking, with many paying more for it than for their flights. 

But there are suggestions that the government has tried to address some of the concerns too. 

The introduction of a green watch list, to flag any countries potentially about to move from green to amber, is an attempt to avoid some of last year’s confusion, as people rushed back to the UK before countries required quarantine.

Nothing is guaranteed yet, but the government now says it will confirm whether or not international travel will restart on 17 May early next month. 

How early is the next question. 

2px presentational grey line

What is the travel industry saying?

The government’s plans have been met with mixed reaction from the travel industry.

  • Heathrow Airport chief executive officer John Holland-Kaye expressed concern about the requirement for PCR testing, adding “we need to make sure that travel is something anyone can do and is not just something for the wealthy”
  • Industry body Airlines UK said that the proposed framework “does not represent a reopening of travel as promised by ministers”
  • Mark Tanzer, boss of travel trade organisation Abta, said permitting the use of lateral flow tests would “make international travel more accessible and affordable” 
  • Jet2.com has extended the suspension of its flights and holidays up to 23 June following the government’s announcement 
Travellers arrive at Heathrow Terminal 5
image captionThe travel industry says lateral flow tests, which are cheaper and faster, would be preferable to PCR tests

Thursday’s daily government figures showed a further 53 people had died with coronavirus within 28 days of a positive test, while another 3,030 confirmed cases were reported.

Graphic showing UK daily coronavirus figures

EasyJet: Two test travel plan would be too expensive

The boss of EasyJet has said testing requirements under a proposed “traffic light” system for international travel would be too expensive.

Under the system, no isolation would be necessary on return to the UK from so-called “green” countries.

But pre-departure and post-arrival tests would be required, potentially costing up to £200 each.

Johan Lundgren said: “You wouldn’t open up international travel for everyone, but only those who can afford it.”

Mr Lundgren told the BBC’s Today programme that the cost of getting the tests would exceed a typical EasyJet fare.

On Sunday, plans for a risk-based system to restart foreign travel were outlined, in which countries would be classified as “green”, “amber” or “red” based on their infection rates and vaccination coverage.

However, while the prime minister said he was “hopeful” that non-essential foreign travel could begin again on 17 May, he added that more data was needed before a firm decision could be taken.

Mr Lundgren said: “If you are ticking all of those boxes to become a green destination… [Multiple tests] don’t make sense to me and it would add to cost and complexities.”

He said that the testing requirement for those countries was “concerning”, but added that he still expected holidays in the summer months of July and August would be able to go ahead.

Scientists and ministers recently warned that holidays to destinations such as France, where Covid cases are rising, are “unlikely”. But Mr Lundgren said: “There’s a huge amount of pressure building up now in these countries to get going and make sure they can follow the example of the UK in its vaccine rollout.”

Other travel industry figures also called for clarity following the Prime Minister’s latest announcement on lockdown restrictions easing.

The Business Travel Association said the announcement was “beyond disappointing” and called for “a clear pathway to international travel and trade”.

Its chief executive, Clive Wratten, said moves to open borders had “once again been kicked down the road”.

“The business travel industry continues to be crippled by today’s lack of movement,” he added.

The boss of travel firm Thomas Cook, Alan French, also told the BBC’s Wake Up to Money that a lack of clarity around what type of tests might be required for passengers and when they would need to be taken was a let-down.

He said that overall, there were “glimmers of good news”, in that the earliest date for travel resuming on 17 May was not pushed back. “But actually, the details were missing and that was disappointing,” he said.

‘Disappointed’

On Monday, Mr Johnson said he did not want to see coronavirus re-imported from abroad and urged people to wait for a report from the Global Travel Taskforce on 12 April.

But Gemma Antrobus, owner of independent travel company Haslemere Travel, warned that business owners like herself faced a difficult path.

“Disappointed is putting it mildly. Where we hoped confidence would start to pick up, and more people would be interested in booking holidays… that just won’t come this week.”

She added that some customers had now moved bookings for holidays five times now amid changing restrictions.

“Every week we don’t have that confidence from consumers, business owners like myself just wonder what lies ahead.”

Akshay Kumar: Bollywood star in hospital with Covid

Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar has been hospitalised a day after testing positive for Covid-19.

The actor said he was doing fine but decided to get admitted as a “precautionary measure under medical advice”.

Many crew members of the film he was working on in Mumbai city have also tested positive. 

Several Indian states have reported a sharp increase in Covid-19 case numbers in recent weeks.

The western state of Maharashtra, where Mumbai is located, has been the biggest contributor to the surge. India on Sunday breached the the 100,000 mark for the first time since the pandemic began in March last year. Maharashtra alone accounted for 57,000 new cases on Sunday. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.View original tweet on Twitter

The state has announced several new limitations to curb the spread but infections continue to rise, affecting Bollywood and several other industries.

A number of popular actors, including Ranbir Kapoor, Aamir Khan, Alia Bhatt and Kartik Aaryan, have tested positive in the past few days. Legendary cricketer Sachin Tendulkar is being treated at a hospital after testing positive – his condition is said to be stable.

The future of the cash-rich Indian Premiere League cricket tournament is also in doubt. It’s due to start on 9 April and Mumbai is slated to host a number of matches.

Officials at the Board for Cricket Control in India (BCCI) say the tournament will go ahead but fans will not be allowed inside stadiums. 

Indian spinner Axar Patel and support staff of different teams have already tested positive.

The recent surge comes after a sharp drop in India’s Covid caseload. In January, India was reporting less than 15,000 cases daily. But numbers began to spike again in March, largely driven by poor test-and-trace and lax safety protocols.

Since the pandemic began, India has confirmed more than 12.2 million cases and over 163,000 deaths. It now has the third-highest number of infections in the world after the United States and Brazil. But its number of deaths per capita is far lower.

Source: BBC

Covid: Europe’s vaccine rollout ‘unacceptably slow’ – WHO

The World Health Organization (WHO) has criticised the rollout of coronavirus vaccines in Europe as being “unacceptably slow”.

Tents for a COVID-19 vaccination centre are installed inside the national stadium of France, Stade De France, in Saint Denis, near Paris, France, 31 March 2021
image captionEurope’s vaccination campaign has been hit by delays

It also says the situation in the region is more worrying than it has been for several months. 

Vaccination campaigns in much of Europe have been hit by delays and the number of infections is rising.

The EU has been criticised for the pace of its vaccination programme – only 16% of its population has received the jab, compared with 52% in the UK.

But the EU says the UK has had an unfair advantage in contracts it signed with vaccine manufacturers, some of whom are based within the EU.

“Vaccines present our best way out of this pandemic… However, the rollout of these vaccines is unacceptably slow” and is prolonging the pandemic in the wider Europe region, WHO director for Europe Hans Kluge said in a statement.

“We must speed up the process by ramping up manufacturing, reducing barriers to administering vaccines, and using every single vial we have in stock, now,” he added.

Last week saw increasing transmission of Covid-19 in the majority of countries in the WHO European region – which includes more than 50 countries and extends from Greenland to the far east of Russia – with 1.6 million new cases and close to 24,000 deaths, the WHO said. 

Only 10% of the nearly 900 million people in the region have had a single dose of coronavirus vaccine.

It remains the second most affected by the virus of all the world’s regions, with the total number of deaths fast approaching one million and the total number of cases about to surpass 45 million, it added.

It also warned of the risks of greater spread associated with increased mobility and number of gatherings over the forthcoming religious holidays of Passover, Easter and Ramadan. 

Some 27 countries of the more than 50 included in the WHO Europe region have implemented partial or full coronavirus lockdowns.

What else is happening around Europe?

  • After President Emmanuel Macron announced new restrictions in France on Wednesday evening, Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Thursday morning at the National Assembly: “The third wave is here.” He announced more detailed measures including a ban on alcohol in public spaces. France is set to begin a limited lockdown for four weeks from Saturday night, with travel restrictions extended from 19 areas to the entire country
  • Eurovision is to take place in Rotterdam’s Ahoy arena in May. The Dutch government wants to use the event as a test with 3,500 spectators allowed for all the rehearsals and the three big shows. There will be extensive safety measures for the 39 countries taking part
  • As infections surge in Belgium, a Brussels court has ruled that all the country’s Covid measures have to be lifted within 30 days because the legal basis is not sound enough. The court backed a lawsuit from the League for Human Rights. Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden has appealed against the ruling
  • Spain is seeing a new rise in cases with an average incidence of up to 152 cases per 100,000 over the last two weeks. Madrid and Navarre in the north are among the areas seeing a spike
  • Cases are also rising in Germany, with 24,300 in the past 24 hours. Almost 90% of infections involve the UK (Kent) variant
  • The Austrian capital, Vienna and two other provinces in the east have imposed an Easter lockdown to help ease the pressure on hospitals. Austrians have been told to stay at home, except for necessary activities such as food shopping, work, exercise and helping their families
  • A new German survey suggests only 25% of people have faith in the government’s vaccination strategy. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has been limited to over-60s in Germany and 40% of those surveyed said they did not want it

Covid: France schools to close under third lockdown

French schools will close for at least three weeks as part of new national restrictions to fight rising Covid cases, President Emmanuel Macron says.

Mr Macron said that schools would move to remote learning from next week.

Lockdown measures, introduced in some areas of France earlier this month, are also being extended to other districts.

All non-essential shops are to close from Saturday and there will be a ban on travelling more than 10km (six miles) from home without good reason.

The country is facing a peak of over 5,000 people in intensive care.

France has so far reported more than 4.6 million cases of coronavirus and 95,495 Covid-related deaths.

What measures has Macron announced?

In his live televised address on Wednesday, Mr Macron described the situation in the country as “delicate” and said that April would prove crucial. “We will lose control if we do not move now,” he said.

The 43-year-old president said it was a race between vaccinations on the one hand and attempting to control the spread of the virus on the other.

He said that while schools would be closing from next week, classes would remain open for the children of key workers.

Mr Macron said that measures introduced in 19 districts earlier this month – including the closure of non-essential businesses, exercise restricted to within 10km of an individual’s home and a ban on travel to other parts of the country without a valid reason – would be extended nationwide.

“Everyone should limit their contacts with other people,” he said, adding that people would be given the Easter weekend to get themselves to where they want to spend the lockdown.

He described “light at the end of the tunnel” if people respected the new measures.

Parliament will debate the measures announced by Mr Macron before voting on them on Thursday, according to the prime minister’s office.

Analysis box by Hugh Schofield, Paris correspondent

More than at previous turning-points, the politics of Covid in France is becoming interesting.

For one thing, President Macron has opened up a much clearer target now for the opposition – they can argue that his decision back in January to overrule the scientists and not launch a third lockdown was a blunder.

He was warned then that the so-called British variant would sweep all before it by the end of March – and lo and behold that is what has happened. And now he is eating his hat.

For his enemies, it is the result of Macron’s hubris – the insufferable self-belief that makes him think he knows better than the doctors.

The other reason it’s getting sensitive is the UK. Everyone in France can see how much better the vaccination programme is going there. If the UK starts resuming ordinary life while France is still struggling, tough questions will be asked of the president.

And elections are only a year away.

How serious is the situation in France? 

With serious cases of coronavirus increasing in France, the pressure on hospitals in the greater Paris region has resulted in a surge in demand for beds at intensive care units (ICUs). Hospitals in and around Paris have also been reducing non-Covid treatments.

The French hospital federation (FHF) last week warned that wards across the country were facing an “unprecedented violent shock” in the coming weeks if authorities were unable to curb the rise in cases. It urged the government to issue a “strict lockdown” or risk hospitals becoming overwhelmed. 

In an interview with France Inter radio on Tuesday, head of infectious diseases at the Tenon hospital in Paris, Gilles Pialoux, said that lockdown restrictions should have been implemented sooner.

“We’ve lost so much time that the measures now will be harder and last for longer,” Gilles Pialoux said, adding that hospital staff were “tired of being tired”.

Public support for a new national lockdown has reportedly been increasing in recent days, with an Elabe Institute poll published on Wednesday suggesting that 54% of citizens questioned backed the move.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo on Wednesday backed the closure of schools, saying the move – which had been seen by the government as a last resort – was necessary because of the “very serious situation”.

A group of French school teachers had earlier filed a legal complaint against Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer for “endangering the lives of others”, accusing him of failing to protect staff in regular contact with children in classrooms.

IATA says travel pass app to launch on Apple mid-April

DUBAI (Reuters) – Global airline industry body IATA said on Wednesday a digital travel pass for COVID-19 test results and vaccine certificates would be launched on the Apple platform in mid-April.

The digital travel pass, currently in the testing phase, had been planned to be launched by the end of March.

IATA Regional Vice President for Africa and the Middle East Kamil Alawadhi said it was expected to launch on the Apple platform around April 15, and later for the Android platform.

“But the application will only achieve its success once airlines, different countries, airports adopt it,” Alawadhi said.

UK-based carrier Virgin Atlantic said on Friday it would trial the IATA app on its London to Barbados route from April 16. Barbados has said it will accept the pass at its border, one of the first countries to accept a digital pass instead of paper documentation.

IATA has said its travel pass will help speed up check-ins.

“A huge amount of airlines have requested to be on board,” Alawadhi said.

Venezuela accuses Facebook of ‘digital totalitarianism’ for suspending Maduro

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s government on Sunday accused Facebook Inc of “digital totalitarianism” after it froze President Nicolas Maduro’s page for 30 days for violating policies against spreading misinformation about COVID-19.

Facebook told Reuters this weekend it had also taken down a video in which Maduro promoted Carvativir, a Venezuelan-made remedy he claims, without evidence, can cure the disease. Facebook said it followed guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO) that there is currently no medication that can cure the virus.

In a statement on Sunday, Venezuela’s information ministry said Facebook was going after “content geared toward combating the pandemic” and described Carvativir as a retroviral of “national production and engineering.”

“We are witnessing a digital totalitarianism exercised by supranational companies who want to impose their law on the countries of the world,” the ministry said.

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Venezuelan doctors have warned that Carvativir’s effect on coronavirus has not been established. The treatment is derived from thyme, an herb that has been used for centuries in traditional medicine.

Maduro, who has overseen an economic collapse since taking office in 2013 and is labeled a dictator by Washington and many other Western nations, said in a tweet on Sunday that he would broadcast his daily coronavirus briefing on the Facebook account of his wife, first lady Cilia Flores.

The South American country has reported 155,663 cases of the novel coronavirus and 1,555 deaths. Those figures are below the levels of many regional peers, but the political opposition says the true number of cases is likely far higher due to a lack of testing. (Graphic: tmsnrt.rs/34pvUyi)

Covid: Rapid home test kits to be available for workers

Employers in England will be able to offer free rapid coronavirus tests to staff to take at home under the extension of a government scheme.

Home kits will be offered to firms with more than 10 employees from 6 April, where on-site testing is not possible.

Businesses should register by 12 April for the lateral flow tests, which can give results in less than 30 minutes, and they are free until 30 June.

Some 60,000 firms have already signed up for workplace testing.

The hope is that asymptomatic cases can be detected quickly, helping to prevent workplace outbreaks.

The wider availability of the rapid flow tests is part of government policy to ensure all kinds of workplaces are able to operate safely as lockdown measures are eased, with the stay-at-home rule ending on Monday.

The schools testing programme – in which pupils, their family members and staff at secondary schools and colleges are tested twice a week – combined with the wider use of workplace testing, has seen the total number of Covid tests carried out in the UK jump.

There were about 500,000 tests a day in mid-February – whereas on two days this week there were more than 1.8 million.

Initially, only businesses with 250 or more employees were eligible to access lateral flow tests. Earlier this month, it was made available to all businesses and this has now been extended to home testing.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said rapid testing was a “vital part” of the roadmap out of lockdown, “helping us to cautiously lift restrictions on our economy and society”.

“Around one in three people with coronavirus do not have any symptoms,” he said. “So extending employee testing from the workplace to the home will help us identify more cases we otherwise wouldn’t find, prevent further transmission and save lives.”

Employees will be told to inform their bosses of a positive test result, as well as the NHS, which will then offer them a confirmatory PCR test. 

British Retail Consortium chief executive Helen Dickinson welcomed the move, saying: “This is something we have called for as the next step for smaller businesses and stores where the space for testing at work is limited. It is also supported by employees as a practical approach.”

Most businesses in England can register via an application form on the government’s website. Charities and some other organisations, including those who are a building society, a partnership or a sole proprietor, will need to register by email, with details listed on the same web page.

Exclusive: Japan to issue digital vaccine passport: Nikkei

(Reuters) – Japan is set to issue digital health certificates to citizens who have been vaccinated against COVID-19, joining China, the EU and other countries that have adopted similar measures aimed at opening up overseas travel, the Nikkei reported s.nikkei.com/3stfAX6 on Saturday.

In line with international standards, the certificate can be managed on a mobile app, allowing the carrier to present the proof of vaccination when boarding a plane or checking in to a hotel, the report said.

The app is also focused on foreigners staying in Japan and returning to their respective home countries, according to the report.

John Lewis: Call for ‘devastating’ Aberdeen closure rethink

The retailer John Lewis is being urged to reconsider its decision not to reopen its branch in Aberdeen.

The department store – which opened in 1989 and employs 265 people – is among eight in the UK closing down.

Cross-party politicians and business leaders have called for more talks, and one online petition already has more than 12,000 signatures calling for the store to be saved.

John Lewis said it would “continue dialogue” about the Aberdeen decision.

The company said the eight shops were “financially challenged prior to the pandemic”.

Earlier this month, the retailer warned it would be making more store closures after the impact of the pandemic led it to report a hefty annual loss.

Russell Borthwick, chief executive of Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce, said there was determination to save the store from the axe.

He said of the closure announcement: “This is sad news, not just for the 265 that worked at John Lewis but for Aberdeen city centre and the north east of Scotland.

“Aberdeen is Scotland’s third city. There is still an appetite for the real life bricks and mortar shopping experience and our offer to John Lewis is that they should engage with the Aberdeen economic partnership to discuss whether there may be ways found to enable them to reconsider this decision.

“Decisions being taken now could see our town and city centres, places that should be the beating heart of our communities, become urban deserts of the future. We must not allow this to happen.”

‘Loss felt widely’

Adrian Watson, chief executive of business-led initiative Aberdeen Inspired, said it was “devastating” news for the city.

“John Lewis is an iconic, trusted and respected retail brand which employs 265 local people, its loss will be felt widely by both staff and the people of the north east”, he said.

“Shoppers are attracted to the city by the presence of John Lewis which, in turn, supports other city centre businesses.”

After the initial announcement on Wednesday, John Lewis said in a later statement: “We’ve been in contact with the chamber of commerce in Aberdeen and relevant local politicians about the proposal to close and we will continue dialogue with them.”

More than 30 stores will start reopening from 12 April, subject to government guidance, with the exception of Glasgow, which will reopen from 26 April, and Edinburgh, which will reopen on 14 May.