Covid cases are soaring in some European countries – and you may be having doubts about any pre-Christmas trips you’ve got planned to the continent.
Austria has entered a nationwide lockdown this week, with people only allowed to leave their homes for limited reasons, such as work and exercise.
Meanwhile Germany – another popular winter destination due to its Christmas markets – is also battling rising numbers. On Friday, Lothar Wieler, the head of the country’s Robert Koch Institute, declared “a nationwide state of emergency”.
Watch: Empty streets as Austria enters fourth lockdown
Elsewhere in Europe, thousands of anti-lockdown protesters gathered this weekend – despite rising cases – in The Netherlands, Switzerland and Croatia.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) is concerned that the latest European wave could lead to additional deaths of around 450,000 before February if not contained.
So, should you cancel your trip to Europe? And if you do push ahead, what kind of holiday can you expect when you’re there?
What’s happening at European holiday destinations?
Germany reported a record 52,826 infections on Wednesday (November 17) which is the largest jump in Covid cases the country has experienced since the pandemic began – and a 10-fold increase from a few weeks ago. Cases continue to rise.
The number of Covid patients in Germany’s intensive care wards is also at its highest level since May. Germany is making tighter restrictions for those who aren’t vaccinated, with restaurants, bars, gyms and cinemas now requesting proof of vaccination.
Parts of the country have already shut down businesses, with images showing stalls in Munich’s Christmas market closed.
Belgium is reporting more than 10,000 new infections on average each day, Hospital admissions are up 30% on a weekly basis, too. The country did reimpose pandemic restrictions three weeks ago after a brief hiatus without any measures, but Covid transmission rates continue to rise.
Austria has announced a national lockdown, which begins on Monday November 22 and could last for up to 20 days. The lockdown was previously announced for unvaccinated citizens only, but the Austrian government then chose to extend it to everyone, in a bid to tackle rising cases.
Last week, infections in Slovenia were also at their peak, with 5,843 new infections reported on Friday (November 19). It’s a similar picture in Croatia, while in Slovakia, a lockdown has been introduced for unvaccinated people.
Dr Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, explained why the situation in Europe is (slightly) different to the UK.
“It is likely that many European countries are coming to the point where the UK was a few months back, in terms of some waning of immunity in the populations vaccinated earlier in the year,” he said.
“The UK rolled out a vaccination programme earlier than most countries, and therefore has experienced impact of waning immunity earlier.”
What are the rules about travel to Europe?
The UK government has not added any new European countries to its red list, meaning travel to holiday destinations is still technically permitted. However, it’s important to look at the entry requirements for the destination you’re hoping to visit.
The Austrian tourist board, for example, has issued the following statement in light of the country’s lockdown: “In Austria, due to the current coronavirus infection situation, a temporary lockdown will come into effect from November 22 until December 13 at the latest. Travel to Austria for touristic purposes will only be possible again after this period.”
Meanwhile Germany has designated the UK a “high-incidence area” and you can only enter Germany for tourism purposes if you are fully vaccinated.
The UK is also currently classified as red zone (high risk) on the Belgian government’s travel colour code system. Unvaccinated travellers can only enter Belgium for limited reasons. Tourists who are vaccinated will still have to follow strict rules on social distancing and masking when in Belgium, and show your vaccination status before you can enter cafes, restaurants and bars.
Again, check entry requirements before you attempt to travel.
Watch: Professor on why Europe is seeing higher Covid rates than the UK
Should you go on holiday right now?
Clearly, you can’t travel to the likes of Austria for a winter holiday in the next couple of weeks, but what about places like Germany, where travel is technically still permitted? Is travel to Europe safe?
That depends how you define ‘safe’, says Professor Paul Hunter, an expert in infectious diseases based at the University of East Anglia. If we’re talking about a risk of becoming infected “nowhere is safe”.
If you’ve got a holiday booked, Prof. Hunter recommends thinking about your personal risk of becoming ill. Factors you should consider include:
Have you already had an infection and recovered and when was it?
Have you been vaccinated and how log ago was your second dose and was if Pfizer or AZ?
Have you had the booster
How old are you?
What is your gender and ethnic background?
Do you have any underlying medical conditions?
How are you going to travel – your own car, public transport?
What are you going to do when you are overseas? Stay in a villa with your family or go partying every night in packed night clubs?
“It is up to an individual to decide what risks he or she wants to take,” Prof. Hunter says. “I am a reasonably healthy male person in my mid 60s and am due my booster dose in 10 days’ time and I have not so far had Covid. I do not go to night clubs, but like to eat out, and I think from about 10 days after my booster dose I would happily go on holiday to pretty much anywhere in Europe.
“But if I was over 80 or had a severe underlying health condition, I would think twice.”
If you’re a young person who frequents clubs or bars regularly, Prof. Hunter points out you’ve probably already crossed paths with the Delta variant, which remains the dominant variant across the UK and elsewhere in Europe.
The UK still has high Covid numbers, at around 40,000 new cases per day. It’s because of this that Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist and professor of molecular oncology at the University of Warwick, doesn’t view holidays as a particularly high-risk activity for those who are vaccinated.
“There’s a lot of infection on the continent, but there’s a lot of infection in this country anyway,” he tells HuffPost UK. “If you look at the number of infections in this country, they’re still running quite high. My view is, you’re at risk here if you’re not careful, and you’ll be at risk oversees if you’re not careful.”
A major difference between the UK and the rest of Europe is that hospitalisations are more stable here, explains Prof. Young. This is largely because we’re ahead in our vaccination programme, and we had an earlier surge in cases over the summer, which also boosted natural immunity in the community.
But of course, there’s also the question of whether you’d actually have a good time on holiday right now. Prof Young reminds readers that you’d need to be willing to abide by local Covid restrictions, which are often stricter than back here in the UK.
“If it was me, personally, I wouldn’t go abroad at the moment, because of the sheer hassle of it all,” he says.
Could travel impact UK case numbers?
One criticism aimed at the UK government earlier in the pandemic is that they didn’t shut down travel quickly enough. Could travel to Europe cause the same problems again? For now, the experts don’t think so.
“You could clearly bring infection back [to the UK], but I don’t think it would be that significant, considering the current level of infection that is already in the UK,” says Prof. Young.
The Delta variant, which caused the most recent wave in the UK. was brought over from India, Prof. Young adds, but we haven’t seen any significant variants of concern elsewhere in Europe so far.
“But one could be thrown up,” he says. “There is the possibility that as the virus is spreading in Europe, if we’re not careful and monitoring what’s going on with variants, it is a possibility that somebody could bring back another variant into the country.”
Prof. Hunter also says he is “not that worried about imported infections at present”.
“I doubt that overseas travel will impact hugely on case numbers here,” he says. “AY4.2, the most concerning variant in Europe, is already here and because of the booster roll out and the fact that we have seen high numbers of cases during July to October, we have probably better population immunity than the rest of Europe and that is what will be controlling case numbers or at least the risk of severe disease.”
Watch: Covid wave in Europe should serve as ‘warning’ to UK, says SAGE advisor
What are some practical tips if you’re planning a holiday?
Emma Coulthurst, a travel expert at TravelSupermarket and icelolly.com, says there’s nothing to stop you booking a holiday at the moment but if you are going to book, you need to be armed with knowledge and make sure that your money is as protected as possible. She recommends following these steps:
Check the entry requirements of the country that you are going to and any restrictions which might be in place and that you are happy to meet the requirements
A package holiday will give you better legal and financial protections. If the FCDO was to change its advice on travel to that country or there was a national lockdown in the country that you are going to, the package holiday company will cancel your holiday and you are entitled to a refund within 7 days of the cancellation
Check the terms and conditions and that you are comfortable with them
Pay on a credit card if the transaction is more than £100. You have better consumer protections if you do this. As long as you put even a £1 on your credit card (and make sure you pay it off so you don’t incur interest), you will be protected
Make sure you have travel insurance in place at the time of booking which includes covid cancellation cover. This means that if you were to contract covid and not be able to take the holiday, you will be able to get your money back
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.