As the summer holiday season draws to a close, it looks increasingly unlikely that the UK-US travel corridor will open before winter.
On 26 July, the Biden administration announced it will maintain restrictions on a range of countries, including the EU and China, for the foreseeable future, because of concerns about the rapidly spreading Covid-19 Delta variant and rising coronavirus cases in the country.
“Given where we are today ... with the Delta variant, we will maintain existing travel restrictions at this point,” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki told a press conference.
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“Driven by the Delta variant, cases are rising here at home, particularly among those who are unvaccinated and appear likely continue to increase in the weeks ahead.”
In June, at the G7 in Cornwall, a new transatlantic travel taskforce was set up to explore ways to reopen UK-US travel.
The group is supposedly exploring options for resuming flights at scale on what was once the busiest and most lucrative intercontinental route network in the world.
Travel from the UK to the US has been frozen for non-residents since March 2020, thanks to a series of presidential proclamations.
After President Biden arrived in the UK for the G7 meeting in St Ives, the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, tweeted: “We’re pleased to announce a joint UK/US Taskforce to help facilitate the reopening of transatlantic travel.”
On 17 August, The Independent’s Simon Calder wrote: “In the past 48 hours I have asked a number of travel industry chief executives about when the current presidential proclamation banning arrivals from the UK might be lifted. Their answers and predictions range from ‘September’ to ‘no idea’.
“While infection rates are high in the US, they are even higher (10 per cent above) in the UK ... the main problem now appears to be two-fold: inertia (once draconian rules are imposed, they can be slow to remove), combined with an unwillingness in Washington DC to complicate the difficult domestic situation at a time when the Delta variant is running wild across America, especially in the key tourism state of Florida.”
Here’s what you need to know about UK-US travel this summer.
How important is UK-US travel?
The market is huge. In 2019, nearly four million Britons travelled to the US, according to the UK’s Foreign Office, while 4.5 million visits were made from the US to the UK, according to figures from VisitBritain.
Pre-pandemic, London-New York was one of the busiest international air corridors in the world (as well as being important economically), with around three million passengers annually.
What are the entry requirements for the US currently?
A ban on travel from the UK to the US was introduced on 16 March 2020. The presidential proclamation of 14 March banned UK travellers from entering the US because their presence “threatens the security of our transportation system and infrastructure and the national security”.
It prevents holidays and non-essential business or family trips to the US. The principle exception is: “any alien whose entry would be in the national interest.”
According to the UK’s Foreign Office advice, British nationals who have been in the UK, Ireland, Schengen zone, Iran, Brazil, China and South Africa in the previous 14 days will not be granted entry.
Anyone arriving from elsewhere will be subject to usual entry rules: either with a visa or with an Esta visa waiver.
These rules don’t apply to US citizens and permanent residents of the US, as well as close family members and other limited visa holders.
The US is on the amber list - but for how long?
Various factors dictate a country’s entry onto the UK green list: countries must be advanced in their vaccine rollout; have low levels of any virus variants of concern; and have low infection rates. Countries’ capacity to do genomic sequencing of the virus is also taken into account. Taken together, the country must pose a low risk for Covid being reimported to the UK.
However, although the US remains on the UK’s amber list, the rules have been softened to allow fully jabbed Americans to swerve quarantine.
On 28 July, transport secretary Grant Shapps confirmed that from 4am Monday 2 August, travellers who have proof of being vaccinated in the US, with a further two weeks for the jabs to take effect, would be able to avoid quarantine. They are now treated the same as people who have been fully jabbed by the NHS when entering the UK from an amber list country.
Mr Shapps tweeted: “We’re helping reunite people living in the US and European countries with their family and friends in the UK.
“From 2 August at 4am people from these countries will be able to come to the England from an amber country without having to quarantine if they’re fully vaxxed.”
They must provide a “test to fly” before being allowed to travel to the UK, and must also prebook a PCR test for after their arrival.
US travellers who aren’t fully vaccinated must quarantine for 10 days upon entry to the UK and take a further PCR on day eight of self-isolation; arrivals in England may also opt to pay for another test on day five to end quarantine early if the result is negative.
A major update to the UK’s travel rules is expected on Friday 17 September, where the US will likely either end up categorised as “safe” or “unsafe” for travel - but regardless of how the UK categorises the country, travellers from the UK will still be denied entry to the US, for the time being.
When will the travel ban be lifted?
Predictions range from optimistic to cautious.
Virgin Atlantic had said it was “hopeful” that travel from the UK to the US will be able to restart from September, after a hiatus of 18 months.
“We’re ready,” the airline’s vice president of global sales, Lee Haslett, told Travel Weekly. on 12 August “We know our competitors are ready. And we know as a travel industry, we’re ready to run.”
Elsewhere, jetBlue has said it could be November before the travel ban is lifted.
The chief executive of the New York-based airline, Robin Hayes, told BBC Today: “We’ve made our views very clear to the administration here that the current approach is not risk based.
“In fact flights are allowed from countries that have a lot higher levels of Covid transmission than countries in Europe. It really doesn’t make any sense.
“We are hopeful over the next two or three months, as we get on the right side of the Delta variant increases we have seen, we can revisit that and we can welcome Brits and Europeans to the States again.”
Two further months of the travel ban would extend to the second week of October, while a three-month continuation would take the ban to a total of 20 months.
However, Irish carrier Aer Lingus is being even more cautious, having rescheduled its new Manchester-New York and Manchester-Orlando services from the end of September to 1 and 11 December respectively, due to continuing travel restrictions.
One unnamed major airline recently told The Telegraph that it would be pushing back the launch of scheduled London-New York flights from September to November.
Airlines have been pushing the White House for months to lift the restrictions in the hope to regain lost ground, but summer travel to the US by Europeans and others covered by the travel restrictions now seems completely off the table.
Can Americans travel to the UK?
The CDC has raised the UK to its highest risk category for Covid, level 4 or “very high”. It warns travellers not to travel to the UK, but if they must, to be vaccinated first.
However, this is not a legal requirement, and is guidance only.
For fully vaccinated Americans, the path has been smoothed. As of 2 August, all double-vaccinated inbound US travellers can follow “green list” rules, and present a negative Covid test at the border and a negative PCR test within two days. Any unvaccinated US traveller will need to self-isolate for 10 days and take two PCR tests on days two and eight.