This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).
Compulsory PCR tests, face masks, vaccination certificates — at the height of the pandemic, travel meant navigating reams of red tape and checking a long list of requirements before you’d even set foot on a plane. Now the rules have been relaxed, travellers are largely responsible for making their own decisions should they test positive. From the legal requirements to the moral debate, here’s what you need to know.
What’s the official advice?
In the UK, there’s no legal requirement to self-isolate if you test positive for the virus, and current NHS advice for adults is to ‘try to stay at home and avoid contact with other people for five days’. So travelling with Covid is permitted — but you have to accept that you risk passing the virus to others.
Which countries still impose restrictions?
Europe has scrapped all Covid entry rules, but it’s worth noting that some countries in the rest of the world still don’t let you travel freely. Tourist destinations such as the Philippines, Bolivia and China still have entry requirements in place; for example, the latter insists that visitors take a lateral flow/rapid antigen test at least 48 hours before boarding a flight, among other restrictions. While many operators, including airlines, have removed the requirement to wear a mask while travelling, some countries including China insist on it in some circumstances.
To avoid unnecessary surprises on arrival, consult the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office’s (FCDO) travel advice pages for each country that you’re planning to visit or travel through. Take note of the entry requirements section, which will show whether the destination currently has any Covid-specific rules or restrictions in place.
Should I still cancel my trip if I test positive?
Now that travellers are largely no longer legally obliged to take a test or disclose the result, it’s important to make an informed decision. No one wants to miss out on a planned trip, but virologist Stephen Griffin encourages people to “prioritise the most vulnerable people in our society”. According to the Office for National Statistics, the risk of death involving Covid remains significantly greater for the immunocompromised — on your next flight, for example, you could be sitting next to someone who’s more vulnerable because they’ve just finished chemotherapy. The guilt of potentially infecting other travellers could be enough to cast a shadow over any getaway.
How easy is it to change your travel plans?
Often, it’s not very easy at all. Most operators have scrapped cancellation policies introduced during the pandemic, and are well within their rights to tell you to take the trip or forfeit your rights if you test positive.Travel writer Lottie Gross recently found herself wrangling with a campsite for a refund after notifying the owners she’d tested positive and being asked by them to stay away. “I don’t entirely regret my decision to inform the campsite of my Covid infection,” she says, “but it was a little frustrating to be told I couldn’t go and that I also couldn’t have a refund.”
If this happens, there may still be options open to you. “You could claim on your travel insurance if your policy covers it and you’re able to provide evidence of your positive test,” says Confused.com’s lifestyle insurance expert Matthew Harwood. “This will vary depending on the provider and their specific terms and conditions, so always double-check what you’ll be covered for before buying a policy.”
It’s also worth checking the small print in your travel booking, as your terms and conditions could legally compel you to divulge test results to your tour operator, accommodation provider or airline.
What precautions should I take if I still want to travel?
If you test positive ahead of a trip and want to minimise the risk of spreading the infection, Professor Griffin advises taking “every precaution to reduce interactions with other people”. He says: “Stay outside (on a ferry deck, for example) or in well-ventilated spaces if possible, and wear a well-fitted, filtering respirator mask, ideally an FFP3, unless distanced from others.”
Published in the October 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).
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