Alpine action: Morzine in the French Alps
French connections, African apprehension, quarantine queries …
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As usual, the travel correspondent of The Independent finds himself in Westminster, in the middle of the usual December gathering season with senior (although necessarily anonymous) politicians.
He put down his glass of wine, cheese and award for an hour to tackle your pressing travel questions about the latest additions to the UK’s travel restrictions in response to the omicron variant.
Q: Am I right to say that you can take pre-bought British tests with you for pre-departure tests before we leave the US for the UK?
Travel Dreamer
A: Let me begin by saying that in all circumstances I recommend that Covid tests are conducted by a medically trained professional. They are far more likely to administer a proper test than one you take yourself. Increasingly, governments are specifying that tests must be properly conducted.
In the US, though, tests tend to be expensive. Many people planning to return to the UK will want to do what they did in the summer of 2021: take a self-administered test where you upload a photograph of the result. While this is wide open to fraud, it appears still to be permitted.
Note that these tests are not authorised for use in the other direction, to travel from the UK to the US. While I am aware that some people have successfully travelled to America using one, the rules clearly state that the only self-administered tests allowed are those supervised by video by US companies.
Q: We are coming back from the UK to France just after Christmas. Is an LFD test a “lateral flow”?
“Mad 21”
A: Yes. The names/abbreviations applied to tests are mightily confusing. LFD means “lateral flow device”, the familiar test which generates (hopefully) a single solid black line when the swabbed material flows on to it. It is a type of antigen or rapid antigen test.
“PCR” means polymerase chain reaction, and is often officially preceded by RT (reverse transcription). This test is slow and expensive, but is better at detecting traces of coronavirus than others.
Q: My husband’s daughter and family are due to fly to Philadelphia then on to Florida for four days over Christmas. They’ve bought lateral flow tests but they say they look just like the NHS ones. They’re in the process of sorting this out with the supplier, but what other tests do they need? I’ve suggested they only purchase their day two tests just before they come back on the 27th, but being Christmas could this be an issue?
Do they also need tests for their internal flight from Philadelphia to Orlando? They’re stressing so much it’s spoiling their anticipation of a great holiday.
Marlene K
A: 1 They will each need a properly certified, privately obtained lateral flow test taken on the day of departure to the US or on the day before. That will cost around £35 each – airport on the day is probably easiest because flights tend to be late morning/lunchtime.
2 No tests needed for the onward flight to Florida.
3 They will need to procure pre-departure tests for travel to the UK. The Orlando airport testing centre will certainly be easiest (just allow an extra hour before checking in for the flight) but it will not be cheap. When I checked last month, a rapid antigen test with AdventHealth cost $65 (£47) – well above comparable prices at UK airports.
4 Correct – book the “day two” test (actually best taken immediately on arrival to the UK) as late as possible. Christmas will not be a barrier to the testing companies making handsome profits by selling these services, so I do not foresee any problem with availability.
Q: We fly to Orlando at the end of January. Do you have any guess or indication how long you think all these extra rules will last. Do you understand the point behind testing before returning to the UK and testing when you land?
A: My guess is that by the end of January rules will be much easier. The government’s thinking is quite beyond me.
Q: What happens if you test positive in America? Do you have to notify US authorities? Do you then arrange your own accommodation and how long are you meant to self isolate there?
Travel Dreamer
A: Anywhere in the world, if you test positive for coronavirus you must notify the authorities immediately and separate yourself from other people. In many nations (and US states) the appropriate body is likely to be the local version of Test and Trace. A second test may be prescribed to confirm the first diagnosis.
What happens next depends on national or local rules. In New York City, for example, the authorities say that “you and those you may have exposed to the virus can qualify for a free hotel room”. In Texas, you can call 211 to find low- or no-cost support.
Q: We’re due to fly to New York on 28 December. We’ve two kids aged 13 and 15 who’ve each had one vaccination and not due the next one till end of January. The New York mayor announced yesterday access to restaurants, bars, museums etc will require proof of double vaccination for 12 year olds and above. It seems pointless to travel for four days given we cannot enter a restaurant or do some of our planned activities. Do you agree?
A: I agree it sounds pointless. All I can suggest is that you try to switch to somewhere like Florida which is at the opposite end of the alarm scale. Deeply upsetting and potentially expensive, I agree.
Q: Does the “Test to Return” to the UK from the USA that you pack in your suitcase to self swab in your hotel room need to be a video supervised one? Some providers are selling only video supervised and some no supervision, they aren’t clear. I understand home tests need to be supervised for outbound entry to the USA.
A: No. There is confusion because the CDC rules in the US refer only to video supervised tests. The same rather ramshackle arrangements permitted by the UK in the summer are still acceptable.
Q: Can you clarify once and for all whether we should be taking our pre departure tests 48 hours or two days before departure? I’m due to fly short-haul into the UK on Friday night and want to take my test tomorrow (Wednesday lunchtime), which is slightly over 48 hours but still within the 2 days. Is this okay? Government messaging is so confusing!
A: Yes, Kxtie. There is no “48 hours” rule for a pre-departure test for the UK. This was a pure invention of ministers last weekend, subsequently reinforced by a misleading press release. Regrettably, though understandably, the media have repeated the assertion.
Q: I understand that if I fly back at 11.59pm on 20 December I can take a test at 12.01am on 18 December, ie 71 hours and 58 minutes before departure.
Will airlines honour the “two days before” rule or will they enforce the 48 hour limit tweeted by ministers?
Paul 22
A: You are correct. I am reminding airlines what the rules are, not what some ministers and broadcasters pretend they are. Anyone wrongly turned away can claim hundreds of pounds in cash compensation.
Q: We are driving back to the UK from Slovenia. We will get tested in Slovenia on Wednesday and should have just enough time (with stopovers) to arrive in Calais for our departure on Friday morning, before the 2 day test validity expires. My question is: what would our rights be if the ferry crossing was cancelled and we were rescheduled onto a later crossing which meant the validity of our tests had lapsed? Seems the two days is plenty of time if you are flying but tight if driving.
Slovie Mac
A: So long as you are booked on something timed to go before midnight on day two (test on day zero) is fine – any delay/cancellation is forgiven.
Q: When I return, am I allowed to circulate meet people and go shopping before my test and then isolate after the test until I get the result?
A: No. Everyone coming back into the UK must self-isolate immediately they return home – which means getting food and other essentials sent in. You can leave isolation only to take a test or in an absolute emergency.
No other nation I know of in Europe has anything like this degree of complication.
Q: Can you confirm if I can use a private (non NHS) provider for a self-administered antigen test that is approved by uploading a photo for travel to France?
Jane K
A: I wouldn’t. There is ambiguity in the French instructions. Also a test professionally administered is always going to be better than anything you and I could do, and therefore of higher personal and public health benefit.
Q: Going to Morzine via Geneva with the children over Christmas. If one of us is to test positive pre-departure to UK, what practically can we do? Likely no hotel would want us.
Vicky A
A: All you can (and must) do is notify the French authorities in Morzine. They will prescribe how much self-isolation is required; where it should take place; and the conditions for leaving quarantine.
Q: We are travelling to France on 19 December to ski with a 10- and 12-year-old. We will be staying in a chalet with seven other families who we don’t know.
Currently we understand that the 12-year-old will need to test daily to use the ski lift.
If one person in the chalet tests positive for coronavirus will the whole chalet need to isolate? And do France have quarantine hotels, as at the end of the week I imagine the travel firm will want us to vacate our rooms.
A: I am not in the best position to comment on the policy that will be adopted in the French Alps in the inevitable case of an outbreak of coronavirus. But I imagine that the ski firm has set protocols that can be explained to you.
Q: We are flying out to Geneva on 22 December. Will we need a PCR as we are transiting immediately into France or will a LFT be sufficient?
Dave Travel
A: You are talking about 15 days from now! All manner of rules may have changed by then. I predict – but I put it no stronger than that – that a lateral flow test will suffice. Please, though, check the day before departure. And have a great trip.
Q: We’re travelling to Mexico on 27 December. Can we take a pre-departure PCR test purchased in the UK with us and use this as evidence of a negative Covid test or do we have to use one purchased in Mexico? Its not very clear on any site exactly how to obtain the pre-departure test or the pricing in individual countries
Cheryl 197
A: Pre-departure tests to the UK: a PCR is not necessary, and a lateral flow will do. NHS tests cannot be used. Self-administered tests sold by recognised providers in the UK, including those using photographic evidence, are acceptable. But as previously mentioned professionally administered tests are more likely to give an accurate result.
Q: I’m only flying from Bristol to Belfast. Can you tell me what I need to have, do, take?
A: If you are going for more than a day, the government in Northern Ireland would like you to take a free NHS lateral flow test before departure in both directions. This is entirely voluntary. There is nowhere to upload the proof, and no need to complete any forms.
Q: We are due to travel to Spain for Christmas. All members are fully vaccinated, including our 15-year-old daughter (two jabs) But how can we prove her status? The 119 support line, NHS app, doctors and Foreign Office are all no help.
Name supplied
A: Two months after I was first told by the Department of Health it was working on finding a solution for vaccinating teenagers, the government in England has finally said that NHS Covid Pass letters will be available from “early next week”.
The statement reads: “12-15 year olds, who have received a full course of an approved Covid-19 vaccination in England, can request an NHS Covid Pass letter online via or by calling 119, or by asking a parent or guardian to request the letter on their behalf.
“The NHS Covid Pass letter will be sent to the 12-15 year olds using the address recorded on their GP record. Parents and guardians are advised to check that the young person’s registered address is up to date before requesting a NHS Covid Pass letter on their behalf.
“The letter can take up to five working days to arrive.” So you should just have time to apply.
Crucially, though, what constitutes “fully vaccinated” for teenagers in the UK does not automatically meet Spain’s stipulations.
The NHS says: “One dose is being offered to children aged 12 to 15 to give them the best protection against Covid-19.
“Some children are being offered two doses of a vaccine if either they live with someone who is more likely to get infections or they have a condition that means they’re at high risk from Covid-19.“
Spain is interested only in travellers who have received both jabs of a two-dose vaccination (and got the second jab at least two weeks ago). So while your trip should be fine, thousands of others are in jeopardy.
Q: We’re about to have a week in the Canary Islands, I’ve tested positive and completed my quarantine, but I’ve been advised I’ll test (false) positive for the next 90 days. Do the pre-departure tests take this into account? Are holiday companies helping travellers arrange these tests in the resorts?
A: The Department of Health says: “If someone has tested positive with a PCR test, they should not be tested using either PCR or rapid lateral flow tests for 90 days.”
But regardless of recovery status the government still insists on all travellers taking the two tests for returning travellers – including the “test before departure”.
The Department for Transport says: “If you have recently recovered from Covid but are no longer infectious, you should use a lateral flow device (LFD) test. LFD tests have a lower sensitivity than PCR or Lamp tests, so they are less likely to return a positive result from a historic infection .”
While lateral flow is clearly the best option for the pre-departure test, there is no option but to take a PCR test on arrival in the UK.
Q: Our family of five is due to go to Hurghada from 19 December for a week. We are increasingly concerned that any late- notice red list changes for Egypt could leave us stranded or quarantining on return. What do you think?
A: I appreciate that this is a very anxious time for you and your family, but in your position I would do my absolute best to look forward to the trip.
Agreed, there are many people currently in isolation hotels in Heathrow, Gatwick, Luton and lovely Milton Keynes, who went to southern Africa fondly believing they would be able to have a blissful winter escape. And it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that other countries could be added to the red list.
But I sense that it would be a step too far even for this government to red list Egypt while many families are there. At the very least I believe they would give a week’s notice or so, to enable airlines to organise an evacuation.
Q: I am a British national and I’m planning to travel to Uganda within this month. However news has been circulating this morning of Uganda having nine cases of the omicron variant. Does this potentially mean Uganda can be put on the UK red list? I am quite sceptical myself due to the stricter rules however I wanted to get some expert advice from you.
Daniel 09
A: Frankly I wouldn’t want to second-guess any decision made by the government right now. Sub-Saharan Africa has, for most of the coronavirus pandemic being treated extremely badly by the UK authorities, and the current “punishment” of 11 African countries when omicron is present in so many other nations is indefensible.
If you haven’t yet booked, I suggest you wait until a few days before departure – and have an escape plan up your sleeve, which could well involve Ethiopian Airlines via Addis Ababa. But I hope very much it won’t come to that – Uganda is a fabulous country and deserves all the tourists it can get.
Q: Do you think the self isolation requirement will change soon for the fully vaccinated from non red list countries? Can’t see the point anymore now that you have to do a pre departure test, and it just adds to the stress!
Also, I ordered a postal test last Thursday, for my daughter arriving from Germany tomorrow.
Despite several emails, they had not even dispatched the test at 1pm today, and even though they have now dispatched it, there was no apology whatsoever. Very stressful as re booking another test would have meant an extra cost, re-doing passenger locator form etc.
A: The UK’s testing regime put in place in the past 10 days is a complete outlier, and surely can only be eased. But tighter rules are imposed quickly and released only slowly.
My strong recommendation, if the test does not arrive, is to ask your daughter to take a test at the airport on arrival – and send the bill to the testing provider. There are certainly logistical problems to do with the sudden change from lateral flow to PCR tests that the government ordered a week ago, but if testing firms are unable to cope they should not be accepting orders and your cash.
Q: I would grateful for advice about documents needed as a transit passenger with Lufthansa from Manchester to Athens (via Frankfurt)?
Greek visitor
A: The attitude taken with most hub airports is that so long as you have permission and the required documents to visit your final destination, you need nothing more beyond of course respecting rules on mask wearing, etc. I cannot write this moment swear exactly what the rules are for Greece. They are straightforwardly explained by the tourism board. But I suggest you also double check with Lufthansa about the Frankfurt transit.
Q: Any views on self isolation rules changing? Son arriving from France in 2 weeks time.
A: They may change on 20 December, but of course that cannot be relied upon. However, on Wednesday evening the health secretary, Sajid Javid, told Parliament that all restrictions may end “very soon”.
In a little-noticed response to a question from a Midlands opposition MP, Mr Javid made clear it was likely, as omicron becomes dominant, restrictions such as testing and self-isolation would no longer be needed.
Q: I am due to fly back from Portugal on 19 December. Do you envisage any further problems between now and then other than the pre-departure and day-two tests?
A: I don’t envisage things getting worse, but given the present decision-making I cannot completely rule it out.
Q: We have an easyJet city break booked for 14 December, returning 20 December. We are hoping that they will allow us to postpone the booking in the light of the updated advice – given that if we test positive we will have to quarantine in Spain and miss Christmas at home. So far the airline isn’t cooperating.
A: I have every sympathy with you, but I also feel for the airlines – who are suddenly seeing their business in December and into January absolutely trashed by the latest unexpected requirements from the UK government. In your position I would probably turn the trip into a three day affair – using only one of the flights that you have booked, and either switching or buying a new flight.
The advantage of this is that you can take a pre-departure test for the UK before leaving the UK.
That may sound mad but it is perfectly legal and responsible. So if you go on 14 December, take a test immediately before your flight. Book a return flight for any time on 16 December. Your test will be valid.
Q: What’s happened to Sajid Javid’s promise about changing track and trace rules for those vaccinated abroad? Threatens to cause misery for so many over Christmas.
A: I suggest you ask your MP. I am less well-placed to answer your very reasonable question.
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