OPINION: The UK’s travel rules for France have hurt many, but is an explanation too much to ask for?

The UK government is on John Lichfield's "red list" for its failure to explain or indeed apologise for its "mendacious or incompetent" travel rules for France, as he also tackles misinformation swirling around the anti-health pass protests in the country.

OPINION: The UK's travel rules for France have hurt many, but is an explanation too much to ask for?
(Photo by James Glossop / POOL / AFP)

An apology was out of the question, I suppose. Even an honest explanation was too much to expect from the present UK government.

The absurd rule discriminating against travellers from France – by insisting on 10 days’ quarantine for fully-vaccinated visitors although other EU countries were exempted – will be abandoned from 4am on Sunday.

Why Sunday? Why 4am? Why still impose quarantine rules and hundreds of pounds in expensive, privately-run tests on British and other arrivals from France for three more days?

Since the decision was taken on July 16th to create a new category – “amber plus” – especially for travellers from France, British ministers and officials have given several different explanations. None of them make sense.

As a rule of thumb, anyone who gives changing explanations for their actions is either mendacious or incompetent or malevolent. In this case, I believe the UK government was, at different times, all three.

There was never a scientific reason to treat France separately from other EU countries. The reason given – “the persistent presence of cases in France of the Beta variant (of Covid-19)”  – was factually wrong.

The Beta variant, first identified in South Africa, was a tiny and falling percentage of Covid cases in France on 16 July. It has since become less than one per cent of the total.

Someone in British officialdom may have mistaken the high Beta variant figures in the French Indian Ocean island of Réunion (population 859,000; distance from the UK 6,000 miles) for European France (population 65,000,000; distance from the UK 20 miles).

The finger of blame is pointed at an advisory committee called the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC). But I know for a fact from a well-informed “source” that very senior French officials pointed out the mistake directly to British ministers before the decision was announced on July 16th. The government went ahead all the same, overruling senior figures such as the Transport Minister Grant Shapps.

I won’t rehearse all the different reasons since given by the UK government for discriminating against France. The geographically-challenged foreign minister Dominic Raab claimed at one stage that the rule WAS aimed at the faraway island of Réunion because of its frequent travel links with the French mainland.

It then emerged that “European France” had stricter controls on arrivals from Réunion than Britain did. The island (with 80 percent plus Beta cases) remained on the UK amber list which allows fully vaccinated travellers to enter. It has now been demoted to red.

I have no proof or inside information but I believe that it suited Downing Street to appear to be tough on France on July 16th when England at least was somewhat controversially loosening its domestic and international anti-Covid restrictions. Why France? Why even ask?

France is the favoured target for misinformed or distorted nonsense in the pro-government UK media (and not just the tabloids). Bashing France is always a useful distraction.

In this case the victims have been British as well as French –  not just would-be tourists but the hundreds of thousands of expats in both counties who have been denied for three weeks the chance to visit relatives for the first time in months or obliged to pay extortionate Covid test fees in the UK.

Even now, some people who are fully vaccinated according to the French government – Covid-recovery plus one dose of vaccine – will be forced to quarantine if they travel to the UK.

Even now, a Covid test within 72 hours of departure plus a PCR test two days after arrival will be required. In France such tests are state-run and are free to permanent residents; tourists pay €49 for a PCR or €29 for an antigen test.

In the UK they have sub-contracted to private companies and can cost a family many hundreds of pounds.

Misinformation around France’s health pass

While on the subject of misinformation, let’s return briefly to the French government’s “health pass” and the protests against it. The protests are real and will probably continue for weeks but they should be placed in context.

Images circulating on social media show enormous crowds of protesters blocking squares or avenues. They are pictures taken on other occasions – some of them not even in France.

Some commentary in foreign media, including the now strangely Francophobe New York Times, implies that the health pass has been widely rejected in France. It has not.

Over 200,000 people turned out on Saturday to protest against the pass sanitaire which makes it difficult to have fun or travel long distances from Monday August 9th unless you are fully vaccinated, recovered from Covid or have recently tested negative. There will be more marches this weekend.

On the other hand, polls suggest that over 60% of the French approve of the health pass. Since President Emmanuel Macron announced it on July 12th, almost 8 million French people have had first vaccinations – double the previous daily rate.

Over 43.6 million French people have now had at least one shot of vaccine. This includes 41.6 million adults over 18 (exactly 80 percent of the adult population). At the present rate, France will overtake the UK total of first vaccinations within a couple of weeks.

In other words, the health pass is already an extraordinary success, several days before it even takes effect. Its main purpose was to re-boot a flagging French vaccine programme. It has achieved that purpose.

That said, the protests –  partly anti-Macron involving the “usual suspects”, partly genuinely anti-pass –  should not be dismissed. Demonstrations in the peak-holiday months are unusual in France. If they continue throughout August, we could be in for a lively September. 

Member comments

    1. Quite reasonably so.

      Like he said, if there were a proper explanation then we would have heard it by now. There isn’t one

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OPINION: France’s ‘slow train’ revolution may just be the future for travel

Famous for its high-speed TGV trains, France is now seeing the launch of a new rail revolution - slow trains. John Lichfield looks at the ambitious plan to reconnect some of France's forgotten areas through a rail co-operative and a new philosophy of rail travel.

OPINION: France's 'slow train' revolution may just be the future for travel
The slow trains would better connect rural France. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP

France, the home of the Very Fast Train, is about to rediscover the Slow Train.

From the end of this year, a new railway company, actually a cooperative, will offer affordable, long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains – Trains à Grande Lenteur (TGL)?– will wander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines.

The first service will be from Bordeaux to Lyon, zig-zagging across the broad waist of France through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon and Roanne. Journey time: seven hours and 30 minutes.

Other itineraries will eventually include: Caen to Toulouse, via Limoges in nine hours and 43 minutes and Le Croisic, in Brittany, to Basel in Switzerland, with 25 intermediate stops  in 11 hours and 13 minutes.

To a railway lover like me such meandering journeys through La France Profonde sound marvellous. Can they possibly be a commercial proposition?

Some of the services, like Bordeaux-Lyon, were abandoned by the state railway company, the SNCF, several years ago. Others will be unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris which have never existed before – not even at the height of French railway boom at the end of the 19th century.

The venture has been made possible by the EU-inspired scrapping of SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services. The Italian rail company Trenitalia is already competing on the high-speed TGV line between Lyon and Paris.

The low-speed trains also grow from an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron and his government to rescue some of France’s under-used, 19th century, local railways – a reversal of the policy adopted in Britain under Dr Richard Beeching from 1963.

The cross-country, slow train idea was formally approved by the rail regulator before Christmas. It has been developed by French public interest company called Railcoop (pronounced Rye-cope), which has already started its own freight service in south west France.

Ticket prices are still being calculated but they are forecast to be similar to the cost of “ride-sharing” on apps like BlaBla Car.

A little research shows that a Caen-Toulouse ticket might therefore be circa €30 for an almost ten-hour journey. SNCF currently demands between €50 and €90 for a seven-and-a-half-hour trip, including crossing Paris by Metro between Gares Saint Lazare and Montparnasse.

Maybe Railcoop is onto something after all.

The company/cooperative has over 11,000 members or “share-holders”, ranging from local authorities, businesses, pressure groups, railwaymen and women to future passengers. The minimum contribution for an individual is  €100.

The plan is to reconnect towns ignored, or poorly served, by the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) high speed train revolution in France of the last 40 years. Parts of the Bordeaux-Lyon route are already covered by local passenger trains; other parts are now freight only.

In the longer term, Railcoop foresees long-distance night trains; local trains on abandoned routes; and more freight trains.  It promises “new technological” solutions, such as “clean” hydrogen-powered trains.

MAP France’s planned new night trains

For the time being it plans to lease and rebuild eight three carriage, diesel trains which have been made redundant in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

There will be no space for a buffet or restaurant car. Restaurants and shops along the route will be invited to prepare local specialities which will be sold during station stops and eaten on board.

What a wonderful idea: French provincial meals on wheels; traiteurs on trains.

Olivia Wolanin of Railcoop told me: “We want to be part of the transition to a greener future, which is inevitably going to mean more train travel.

“We also want to offer journeys at a reasonable price to people who live in or want to visit parts of France where train services have all but vanished. We see ourselves as a service for people who have no cars – but also for people who DO have cars.”

Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station in Cheshire closely observing trains.

Three years ago I wrote a column for The Local on the dilemma facing SNCF and the French government on the 9,000 kilometres of underused and under-maintained local railway lines in France. Something like half had been reduced to low speeds because the track was so unreliable. Several dozen lines had been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.

The government commissioned senior civil servant, and rail-lover, François Philizot to study the problem. After many delays, he reported that much of the French rail network was in a state of “collapse”. Far from turning out to be a French Beeching, he recommended that a few lines might have to close but most could and should be saved – either by national government or by regional governments.

Since then the Emmanuel Macron-Jean Castex government has promised a big new chunk of spending on “small lines” as part of its €100 billion three year Covid-recovery plan. Even more spending is needed but, for the first time since the TGV revolution began in 1981, big sums are to be spent on old lines in France as well as new ones.

The Railcoop cross-country network, to be completed by 2024-5, will run (at an average of 90 kph) partly on those tracks. Can it succeed where a similar German scheme  failed?

François Philizot suggested in a recent interview with Le Monde that a revival of slow trains might work – so long as we accept that a greener future will also be a less frenetic future.

“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer,” Philizot said.

Amen to that.