Holidays abroad: What are the risks?

How risky will it be for people who have been vaccinated to travel abroad from mid-May? It’s a question that must be plaguing many silver travellers, like some kind of nonmusical earworm. Take Patricia Houlihan from Frinton-on-Sea, who has booked to travel to Greece, with a friend, on 19 May. Her words will resonate with visitors to this site: “By that time I will have had my second vaccination and had a three-week interval since the jab”, she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “If I’m not allowed to go to Greece, then what faith can I have in the vaccine? The whole thing’s contradictory. Am I safe or not? Are those I’m in contact with unsafe, or not. It’s unreasonable to stop me going. I am 82, and a year in the life of a person in their 80s is far more than 52 weeks.”

Her remarks followed an outburst of warnings from experts and government ministers that it was too early to book a holiday abroad and, in one instance that we could probably forget international travel this summer altogether. This last with two months to go until 17 May, the earliest date, we’re told, by which such travel might start. As one leading travel industry figure retorted, a lot can happen in two months. Two months ago we didn’t have 27 million people vaccinated. Then, from Boris Johnson, the grim suggestion that a third wave, like some marble white cadaver, threatened to ‘wash up’ on our shores.

Let’s consider the facts and statistics. As I write, the UK has recorded 57.4 new cases per 100,000 of the population in the past seven days. That compares with Portugal’s 31.8, Spain’s broadly similar 60.8 and Greece’s 149. To quote two other examples, France and Italy, which have seen recent surges, are somewhat higher, at 216.2 and 254.4 respectively.

If you were in Portugal you would have a one in 3144.6 risk of bumping into someone with Covid-19. But hang on, the number of people in Portugal who are currently infectious will be much higher than that. This is where I have to make a reasonable assumption and double the risk to, say, roughly one in 1500. Even so, the likelihood that you would be in contact with them long enough to catch it would be immeasurably smaller. Reduce that risk still further if you have been fully vaccinated and add the fairly well documented likelihood that if you did catch it, you would suffer only mild to moderate consequences. Then throw into the mix the distinct probability that in Portugal, as in most countries, the danger is more acute in densely populated areas. With the same cocktail of statistics and conjecture, scale up the risk in other countries and draw your own conclusions.

Of course the number of cases in other European countries could still rise sharply. But as they increase vaccinations over the next two months infections may equally recede. And until now I haven’t mentioned the threat of new variants. But based on the reported proportion of South African variant cases in France, for example, (5% – 10% of all infections), the current danger that a tourist could import it is surely infinitesimal.

In all these admittedly, back of an envelope, untested estimates there is a strong element of Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘known unknowns’. Not least among these is the question whether a vaccine passport, which would allow some to travel abroad while confining others to the UK, would be regarded as discriminatory. My own view echoes Ms Houlihan’s: age is already discriminatory – in time, in costs, in physical capability.

To sum up: while it’s self-evidently too early to guarantee those much missed overseas trips this summer, it is also too early yet for the doom mongers to be dismissing the possibility. The largest tour operator, TUI UK believes such holidays will be possible.

Bring back last year’s traffic light system of grading for high, medium and severe risk destinations. With hotels already taking stringent safety measures, persuade resorts to keep sweaty, crowded nightspots closed, at least for this summer. Insist tour operator and airlines make quick, cheap, lateral flow tests available (see Make sensible self-isolation mandatory without PCR tests (by sensible I mean allowing shopping and exercising in masks). It’s not absolutely COVID proof, but nothing ever will be.

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Roger Bray

Travel writer

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