Holiday green light – an excess of caution?

More than a year after the first lockdown many people are champing at the bit to get away on a holiday abroad. If you’ve received a double vaccination dose, how likely is it you will contract coronavirus? How much will you have to fork out for a PCR test on your return and would a much cheaper lateral flow check be sufficient to prevent travellers bringing the disease home with them.

Beachcombing with friendsI’ve been doing some back of an envelope arithmetic: take France, for example. Like me, countless Francophiles must be longing to take the car across the Channel again, when infections allow. At the time of writing, though there were signs that the current wave there might have passed its peak, we still had no idea whether the Government would include the country in its green traffic light list of safe destinations. But what if you could go now?

As of 12 April the seven-day incidence of coronavirus in France was just over 352 per 100,000 of its population, or approximately 290,000 across the country. So the risk you would encounter someone with the disease was just over 0.35%. The likelihood that you would be in contact with that person long and closely enough to be infected is, of course, incalculable. But one evaluation of NHS Test and Trace data found only 6% of those who had actually been in contact with infected people had caught COVID. You will pass most of those with the disease harmlessly in the street, so let’s say you’re at risk from 1 in 200. Then factor in the claim from experts that there’s only about a one in 20 risk of being infected if you’ve had two jabs and – unless my calculation is way off the mark the risk is roughly 1 in 1.6m.

Hiking the mountainsCue howls of derision at such extrapolation. You would have to steer clear of nightclubs and similarly congested places to make these figures stand up, for example –  and avoid air kissing new acquaintances. What about those who haven’t been vaccinated. Are they to be excluded from international holidays until the pandemic runs out of steam? Whatever, you have to concede that the odds against bringing it home are long and those of importing the South African or Brazilian variant longer still. And if the infection rate in France drops further say to the 40 or so per 100,000 in Portugal (also as of 12 April) the risk begins to look infinitesimal.

If non-essential foreign travel does restart on 17 May, green light destinations will be the only option for most people. Trips to those rated amber and red will involve quarantine. Even people returning from those with green lights will need to take pre-departure tests before leaving for home and on arrival. It is assumed the former can be lateral flow tests. The latter have been specified as PCR tests, which must be taken within two days of arrival. These can cost over £100, about two thirds of which stems from the laboratory diagnosis. There have been some signs that prices may come down. But take care. Discounted PCR tests are likely to involve using the mail – and there have been disturbing reports of long delays getting results.

An Italian dessertTravel industry experts have been asking why a lateral flow test on arrival would not suffice to keep the country safe. PCR tests themselves are not perfect. They detect viral shedding long after the infectious period, so travellers might be quarantined unnecessarily. According to the World Health Organisation, lateral flow tests are more likely to detect positive cases when people are at their most infectious. Public Health England found they were most accurate when administered by trained laboratory scientists, less so when used by trained healthcare staff and least often correct when given by track and trace staff at a leading pharmacy. They look to be best at identifying spreaders, but also, there appears to be a substantial risk they will miss asymptomatic cases.

That accepted, It would be useful to know just how many cases were imported during last year’s relaxation of travel restrictions – and the extent to which COVID spread as a result.

All of which goes back to my initial question about tests. A recent survey suggests silver travellers with spare money might swallow the expense of a PCR test, though they are unlikely to be happy about it. The Government has said it will try to “drive down” the cost. It has promised to review the rules no later than three ‘checkpoint’ dates: 28 June, 31 July and 1 October. But is it being overcautious requiring them in the first place?

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Roger Bray

Travel writer

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