Q&A: Do we know yet where abroad we can go on summer holiday?
All you need to be aware of if you are planning that long-awaited trip overseas
‘Imagine if you went to Greece and all was rosy as your plane took off but while you were lounging on a Cretan beach, a spike in Covid-19 infections was reported there.’ File photograph: Getty
Are we any the wiser on whether we can holiday overseas this summer?
Well, to borrow a couple of lines from Dr Seuss, we are all still “in a most useless place, the waiting place” and when it comes to “the places you’ll go”, we still don’t really know.
What? I thought there were big developments this week?
Yes and no. But mostly no. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has outlined a map of sorts for the resumption of foreign travel, but the reality is we still don’t know whether we are coming or going or what’s going to be happening in the weeks ahead. Or at least we don’t know very much more than we did at the start of the month.
What did the Taoiseach say this week?
He announced that from July 9th there will be air bridges between Ireland and some other countries and people will be able to travel to and from those countries without having to undergo a 14-day quarantine and with the permission of the Department of Foreign Affairs. The list of countries will be co-ordinated at European Union level.
And where are these countries?
Oh we don’t know. We won’t know what countries are on the so-called Green List for some time yet and maybe not until just before July 9th. The Taoiseach also said he needed “to caution people, that list of countries will be reviewed and it may change every two weeks. So we may see it getting longer but if a country ends up having a second wave or there are spikes then they may be taken off that list of countries.”
So how can I plan my holiday?
You can’t actually, or at least not with any degree of certainty.
Can you guess what countries are likely to be one the list?
Ah yeah. We can always try, although to be honest there probably will not be that many in the first instance. Travel experts and people close to those who stalk the corridors of power have suggested that Spain, Portugal, Malta, Greece and Croatia are likely to be among the EU countries that feature. Other countries including Finland and the Baltic states also have low levels of virus transmission today and would most likely be accommodated also. But as they are not primary, or even secondary, holiday destinations for Irish people the level of traffic to such destinations is likely to be small.
What criteria will be used to decide the Green List?
According to Government officials, the precise criteria is still being worked on but key elements are likely to be the reproduction rate of the virus in each country, level of community transmission and numbers hospitalised, and mortality rate along with measures that are in place in countries to contain the virus.
Will the United Kingdom be on the list?
This is a tricky one in an Irish context. Had you asked this question a couple of weeks ago, the answer would have been a definite maybe as officials were humming and hawing about allowing resumption of unfettered travel between here and there. It would have been deemed politically wise, not least because of the common travel area, to do that.
But attitudes on this side of the Irish Sea have hardened in recent days and the chances of the UK being included on any good-to-go list in the near future is pretty much zero. That means people who travel from the UK to the Republic will be forced to spend two weeks in quarantine while a travel advisory against going to the UK from the Republic is likely to remain in place. On Thursday the Taoiseach said if a decision was to be made on list of accepted countries today, the Government would not be removing the 14-day quarantine requirement on travel between Ireland and the UK.
Is that extreme given they are our closest neighbour and huge market for our tourism?
If there was any doubts in official circles about leaving the UK out in the cold, they would have been removed this week after images of overcrowding and general chaos on the beaches around Bournemouth started circulating. The celebrations around Anfield after Liverpool won their first league title in 30 years will not have done much to create the impression that Britain has the whole social distancing thing under control either.
Hang on. Isn’t Northern Ireland in the UK? What about that?
That is a very good question. Of course Northern Ireland is part of the UK but it is also part of the island of Ireland and so it is exempt from any of the restrictions that are imposed on Britain, which means people from Northern Ireland are able to travel freely to the Republic.
So can I fly from London to Belfast, then take the train to Dublin?
Yes. And there is absolutely no way that channel of entry can be closed unless the new government feels inclined to rip up the Belfast Agreement as one source said on Friday. And that is not going to happen.
Remind me again what the restrictions are now?
Well the Department of Foreign Affairs is advising against all non-essential travel while everyone arriving in the State at its airports or ports must fill in a passenger locator form to allow authorities to check if individuals are self-isolating for 14 days as advised and for contact tracing purposes.
What happens if I don’t want to do that?
People who do not fill out the passenger locator form or who provide false details can face a fine of €2,500 or a prison term of six months.
Could I take a chance and go to a country not on the Green List?
You could. As it stands there are plenty of flights to countries that are not likely to be on any list in the near future. You can also fly to the United States today – or at least there are planes leaving here and flying there. But does that mean you can fly to those countries? Not really. First, if you do it will be at your own risk and invalidate any travel insurance policy you have. When it comes to the United States, that country has barred entry to Irish citizens. But while the planes might be leaving Ireland you have an Irish passport so will not be allowed on it. Oh, and when you come back you will have to do the quarantine thing also which, after what we have all been through, does not sound like a lot of fun.
What was that you said about travel insurance?
If you travel to any country against official advice then you automatically invalidate any travel insurance you might have . If you’re travelling within the European Union and you have a European Health Insurance Card then you’ll be treated in the whatever country you are in as a citizen of that country. But if you are the victim of a robbery or any other crime or need to be repatriated or suffer any other mishap you’re on your own.
Okay, back up. Varadkar said the Green List was a movable feast. What if a country is taken off the list while I am there?
What, indeed. Imagine if you went to Greece and all was rosy as your plane took off but while you were lounging on a Cretan beach, a spike in Covid-19 infections was reported there. Under the as yet unwritten rules, Greece might be whisked off the list and you would have to quarantine upon your return, if you could get home. Government officials are working at how to square this circle and are said to be struggling to see how this might be managed to everyone’s benefit.
Why would anyone travel with such doubt hanging over the trip?
There is still considerable confusion and mounting concern about spikes in Covid-19 in other countries. So many people may decide that it might be as well off giving up on overseas travel this summer. And the Government would probably be delighted by this outcome.
Why not just say no non-essential overseas travel until October?
Because travel is a two-way street. The Government in general and the Department of Transport and Tourism in particular is walking a thin line here. They have to factor in public health concerns and the economy. There is a tourism sector here that is worth billions and an aviation sector on its knees. The Government is keen to allow visitors come, safely, to this country but not so keen to see many thousands of people leaving and rubbing shoulders with potentially infected people overseas before coming home and bringing the virus with them.
Will opening our borders to travel not increase the risk of the virus spiking here?
It will and the Government is aware of the dangers of importing new cases of Covid-19 into parts of Ireland that have been clear for weeks if the doors are opened to overseas tourists too quickly. “That would be the nightmare scenario,” according to one official.
But airlines are flying, right?
Well, they certainly have plans to and the charge to take to the air again is being led by Ryanair. It said it has seen a “surge” of bookings from Irish holiday makers for July and August with people seeking to fly to the sun. It is, however, worth pointing out that while the airline talks about a surge in new bookings, many of the seats on flights bound to Spain, Portugal and Italy this summer will have been sold to Irish families who had plans in place long before the pandemic hit.
If restrictions remain and flights take off, will people get their money back?
No. Under the rules if a plane takes off and a passenger follows official guidance and avoids non-essential travel overseas then they are regarded as a no-show and are not entitled to any money back.
And what will travel look like when it restarts?
Passengers will be asked to wear face masks for a start. DAA, the State company responsible for Cork and Dublin airports, says public access to terminals will be limited to passengers, travellers will have to maintain the 2m social distance and there will be constant reminders about hand washing. DAA has installed more than 960 hand sanitisers in Dublin and Cork and there will be hundreds of Plexiglass screens at close-contact points. DAA has also said it will regularly deep clean and disinfect all hard surfaces, including trays, handrails and self-service kiosks, while paying close attention to places where passengers congregate. Masks are likely to be a requirement on board planes.
Will air bridges apply to other parts of the world?
Things are moving slowly and travelling within the EU is probably the best Irish people can hope for in the weeks ahead. Places like Dubai may also open for business in early phases of the resumption of travel.
What about the US? Are we likely to see an air bridge to that country?
That certainly seems unlikely in the short term. Covid-19 is not under control there and its leading public health official, Dr Anthony Fauci, indicated last week that that US restrictions on international travel could remain in place for months and perhaps until a vaccine is developed. And on Friday holiday company TUI announced it had cancelled all holidays to Florida for its Irish customers up to the end of November “due to the ongoing uncertainty around international travel restrictions and the unprecedented impact of Covid-19”. That news might give you an idea of where we’re at.