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

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)
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.

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.

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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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