As the temperature cools in the UK, things are heating up on the Continent. Amid a fourth wave of the virus, several European countries have reintroduced Covid-19 restrictions, from shuttered Christmas markets in parts of Germany to a curfew in the Netherlands – and an outright lockdown in Austria.
And people are not happy about it. Over the weekend, demonstrators from Copenhagen to Brussels clashed with police during protests against new measures. Our chances of enjoying a romantic getaway to Vienna, a stroopwafel in Amsterdam, or a gluhwein in Munich this winter are looking increasingly slim.
The picture in the UK is quite different. Our seven-day case rate remains fairly high at 434 per 100,000, but this is considerably lower than Austria (1,076), Slovakia (1,265), the Czech Republic (979), the Netherlands (860) and Belgium (835). It is steady, having fallen by 2.38% in the last week, compared to rises of 28% in Austria, 30% in Germany and 56% in the Netherlands. It is also partly down to the large number of tests we are carrying out (Germany, for example, currently has a test positivity rate of 17%, compared to around 4% in the UK).
So, far from being ‘Plague Island’ (a term coined by the New York Times during last winter’s Covid-19 surge, which has lingered since), Sage scientist Professor John Edmunds says the situation in the UK is fairly stable. Asked if the UK would also return to lockdown, he told Sky News: “Here in the UK, we’ve had high rates of infection for many months now and we’re in a slightly different position to Austria and Germany.
“We’ve had high rates but [they are] fairly stable. I don’t think things will happen quite in the same way as they have done there.”
It means that, while curfews and closures are creeping back into the conversation across the Channel, England remains a land of relative liberty, without mask laws or Covid passports.
From a tourism perspective, it will be interesting to see if we turn this situation to our benefit. Will we be able to lure international travellers hungry for a rule-free festive getaway?
British businesses will certainly be hoping so. It has been a difficult two years. Overall, inbound visitor numbers are moving in the wrong direction, from 40.9 million in 2019, to 11.1 million in 2020 to 7.4 million in 2021, according to Visit Britain. Conversely, France, Spain and Turkey, perhaps helped by their Mediterranean climates, have all witnessed tourism recoveries between 2020 and 2021, while Greece is almost back to pre-pandemic levels (around 86% compared to its 2019 arrival figure).
Transport Minister Grant Shapps is trying his best to make the United Kingdom more appealing to international visitors. In recent months the Government has made visiting the UK easier and cheaper for vaccinated arrivals. The pre-departure test is now gone, the day two test can be a lateral flow rather than PCR, and the draconian hotel quarantine measure has been put on ice.
And for those who do make the leap, it’s very much business as usual. Christmas Markets are reopening, from the sprawling (Manchester’s number in Albert Square) to the boutique stalls that have opened up in the shadow of Winchester Cathedral. Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park has opened its doors for the season, if that’s your thing, and theatres across the land are primed for the impending pantomime season. In England, you won’t need to show a vaccine certificate to enter any venues, whereas in Scotland and Wales they are a requirement only for nightclubs and larger events.
For families, the UK is more relaxed than many countries when it comes to entry requirements for children. Canada imposes quarantine on unvaccinated children aged 12 to 17; Israel imposes an outright ban on unvaccinated minors; France requires all children to have either a vaccine certificate or recent negative PCR test in order to enter restaurants or bars. To visit the UK, children aged 4 to 18 must simply take a test within 48 hours of arriving, with no vaccination requirement at all. Under 4s can enter swab-free.
There have been examples of people travelling to escape Covid-19 measures. In February 2021, French tourists crossed the border to Madrid where bars and restaurants were open and people could stay outdoors until 10pm. In their French hometowns, restaurants were shut and a strict 6pm curfew was in place.
There could be a similar trickle of people travelling to the UK if more European countries enter a lockdown, but it is hard to picture the UK’s inbound tourism economy cashing in significantly on the fourth wave in Europe. Indeed, in some countries there is still a feeling of bewilderment as to why things are so normal here in the UK. England in particular is seen as something of an outlier, for both its laissez-faire approach to crowd capacity limits during the Euro 2020 football and for failing to introduce vaccine certificates.
Our relaxed approach could be working against the UK’s appeal as a holiday destination. Last week a YouGov survey showed that vaccine certificates have general support across Europe; in Italy, 58% of people believe they should be mandatory to enter a restaurant. Spain (51% in favour) and France (50%) are more divided on the topic, but are still far more supportive of the move than the UK, where 41% of people believe they should be used for entry to restaurants.
Fabio Bergonzini from Bologna, Italy, told CNN Travel: “The general perception from here is that in the UK, people don’t regard Covid as an issue anymore, as if it’s not even discussed. Some Scottish friends told me that everyone in Scotland is going around with masks, but people in England aren’t. Considering that I don’t leave home without a mask, I’d feel a bit strange being the only one masked in [the] UK.”
There is also the post-Brexit impact on inbound tourism. As of October 1 2021, Europeans cannot enter the country on an ID card but must instead show a passport, and on January 1 2021 the Government abolished the VAT Retail Export Scheme which allowed tax-free shopping in the UK for non-EU citizens. Rather than expanding this privilege to Europeans, the Government scrapped the scheme entirely. Fuel shortages and supply chain issues haven’t helped with the optics of a nation best avoided.
With all this in mind, according to Joss Croft, CEO of Ukinbound, we are facing a difficult winter ahead. “UK businesses that are heavily reliant on inbound tourism face a tough winter. For the vast majority of our members, bookings/expected arrivals during November and December are expected to be down by over 75% compared to the same period in 2019, with many international visitors deferring their visit to 2022.
“Additionally, Europe is the UK’s largest inbound tourism market and further lockdowns and restrictions across the continent will impact people’s desire to travel internationally. 2022 is showing green shoots for the industry but signalling to the world the UK is open for business and welcoming has never been more important.”
So yes, we have stability when it comes to our Covid-19 case rate and our weekly death rate is creeping slowly down. Individuals have the liberty to visit restaurants, bars and art galleries without showing evidence of their vaccination status, and wearing a mask indoors is a choice not an edict. Meanwhile, our booster programme continues apace. Put it all on paper and you would have thought people would be rushing here in their droves. And yet, once again this winter, we will have this ‘plague island’ largely to ourselves.
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