Q&A: What are the chances of being able to holiday abroad this summer?

Conor Pope on the prospects for foreign travel and sunshine vacations in 2021

Did I hear that foreign holidays are on the horizon? Where's my passport?
Steady on. You're still not allowed to leave your county, never mind your country. But at least we have been told that good news is on the horizon when it comes to nonessential international travel, even though any changes will be gradual, according to Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney.

What does that mean?
The official line remains that there should be no nonessential international travel. But that may change over the summer.

Why would it change? Surely the case numbers are still, to use a phrase we all hate now, stubbornly high
The Government is getting ready to sign up to the European Commission's green-passport scheme, which will make it easier for vaccinated people to travel throughout the EU. And, of course, the vaccine roll-out continues – although it looks as if the target of immunising 80 per cent of adults by the end of June will be misseed, a significant percentage of us will be inoculated by the summer, which means we will be able to take advantage of the digital green certificate.

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Can you remind me what that is again?
At its simplest, a digital green cert is a QR code that you will be able to download to your phone – as long as you are part of a certain cohort (another word we have come to hate). It will have up-to-date details of your Covid status, meaning airlines and others will be able to see if you have been vaccinated, have a recent negative test result or have recovered from Covid and so have antibodies.


That sounds like a lot of medical info I'd be giving away
It is and it isn't. According to the European Commission, only the bare minimum of information will be on the cert, and it will not be linked to a directory of health status.

So it's definitely not a vaccine passport, then?
No. The European Union justice commissioner, Didier Reynders, has said the plan is to "give to citizens and member states a tool that provides the necessary trust and confidence. A tool that competent authorities can rely on wherever needed to facilitate free movement. Similarly, an airline company could... verify the validity of the certificate in a simple way at the check-in. Long discussions at the gate should be avoided." He has repeatedly stressed it is not a "vaccination passport", as being inoculated cannot on its own give people the right to travel freely, as that would discriminate against people who cannot or will not get the jab.

And is it up and running?
No. The system probably won't be in place until June. The Government will then have to decide when to join. That will depend on case numbers here, among other figures.

Will the Government act swiftly to join up?
It doesn't have the best record when it comes to swift action on international travel in pandemic times, to be honest.

So when can I go away again?
You'll be able to go on an overseas hollier at some point in the coming months, according to Coveney, although he thinks it "is still some way off". But he has warned that we should all hold off on booking overseas holidays or flights, because changes will be gradual.

"Some point"? What does that mean? Are we talking May? June?
"I just honestly think June is too soon," Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise Leo Varadkar said on Thursday. "I think we need to get into a position where we have our economy and society largely open here first, get back to hospitality being open, religious services, outdoor gatherings. I think international travel comes after that."

Hang on. Did Varadkar not effectively rule out overseas leisure travel in 2021 at the start of the year?
Sort of. He was certainly very gloomy about the prospects when we were in the middle of the third Covid wave. But we were all pretty gloomy in January or February, so we might as well celebrate the hint of optimism creeping into the conversation.

What are other people saying?
One of the breakout stars of the pandemic – and perhaps our favourite Trinity College Dublin biochemistry professor – Luke O'Neill, says the digital green cert is a sensible measure. He told the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation this week that tourism is an essential activity. "It is essential for the economy. I don't think the variants should stop vaccinated people from travelling. It is very sensible to bring back tourism. We just need to keep an eye on the virus variants."

What is the travel industry saying?
It is cautiously optimistic that there is light at the end of the tunnel, although insiders are saying it will most likely be August or even September before Irish people start travelling overseas in earnest again.

And where might we go?
Most – all, really – European countries are still struggling to get on top of Covid-19. That means options are still pretty limited. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control's colour-coded map of Europe is a sea of red, meaning infection rates are still high. Only a few countries – or parts of countries – are amber, and only one – Finland, not a noted sun spot – is green.

What colour is Ireland?
Amber. Except for the bits around Dublin, which are red.

How soon are holiday destinations planning to reopen?
In the Seychelles, almost 70 per cent of the population has been vaccinated. In the Maldives the rate is 55 per cent. Both are racing ahead with restarting tourism. Greece has said its tourism services will reopen on May 15th, and it has lifted quarantine restrictions for travellers from EU states. Malta plans to entice vaccinated visitors with a voucher worth up to €200. Spain wants to have the digital-green-certificate system in place by June. Portugal plans to reopen in the middle of May for visitors who have been vaccinated, or who have had Covid-19 or a negative test. (The UK is planning to restart its international travel in earnest on May 17th.)

So soon I'll be checking my pockets for tickets, money, passpo… Hang on: my passport has expired. Is that a problem?
It might be. The passport system has a backlog of 92,000 applications, although the Government has said it will be cleared within six to eight weeks once Level 5 restrictions are eased.

So brighter days ahead, then?
We can only hope.

Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor and cohost of the In the News podcast