We’re all going on a summer holiday – we just don’t know where, when or how

“Roadmap” is the wrong term for the government document with the catchy title Covid-19 Response − Spring 2021. This instruction book is actually the weirdest and least helpful travel guidebook I have ever seen.

Just a reminder (and I can scarcely believe I am writing this): all holidays are illegal in and beyond the UK. Unless you live on one of a scattering of lovely Scottish islands, merely being outside your house for a leisure pursuit that cannot legitimately be described as “exercise” is unlawful.

In Scotland you may travel up to five miles from the boundary of your local authority area to exercise, while Northern Ireland specifies: “You should not travel more than 10 miles from your home in order to take exercise. And I have just had a discussion with a colleague about hotel quarantine, during which I found myself remarking: “Brief escorted visits to the car park have always been possible.” What has the world of travel become? 

All that changes later this year, we desperately hope. But when and how can we reclaim the freedom to travel? That is what I have spent the week assessing, at least for the English: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have yet to spell out what changes they may make.

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The road to freedom starts by going backwards: the rules will get tougher before they get easier.

Buried deep in the roadmap is another hurdle: “From 8 March, outbound travellers will be legally obliged to provide their reason for travel on the Declaration to Travel form.” This additional obstacle was originally promised to Parliament by the home secretary, Priti Patel on 27 January, but will now be delivered 40 days later. It is effectively a self-generated “exit visa” of the kind beloved of bureaucrats back in the USSR.

By 29 March the stay-at-home rule should be lifted – replaced by another Soviet-style policy, “stay local”. This is guidance rather than law, and I predict it may be widely ignored. 

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So can we once again board buses, boats and planes? I imagine so. But in a 68-page document that finds space to designate spa facilities that must remain closed until summer (saunas and steam rooms, just so you know) there is not a word about whether we can expect unrestricted use of public transport just 30 days from now. The Department for Transport is unable to enlighten me any further.

From 12 April, we know that something getting closer to the notion of a holiday will be legal: an overnight stay away from home. But it must be in “self-contained accommodation”, which means a place that does not require “shared use of bathing, entry/exit, catering or sleeping facilities”.

That rules out Center Parcs, then, I concluded when I studied the wording. While the accommodation in these leafy holiday villages is splendidly self-contained, each of the five UK sites is a swimming/sporting hub. But the company believes it can deliver within the rules , and I daresay others may adopt a looser interpretation of “shared use”. 

The big prize for many of us, though, is going abroad. And all we know for sure is that overseas holidays will not be permitted before 17 May. That doesn’t mean we can be sure of a European escape on that magic Monday. For a start, the destination must be happy to accept us. (The magnificent vaccine roll-out may help, with the image of British travellers potentially transformed from the sick men and women of Europe to the most in-demand boys and girls of summer.) And the extraordinary array of tests and quarantine that awaits returning holidaymakers must be untangled.

“There will come a point where these restrictions will need to be superseded by a more facilitative model,” the document concludes. To translate from bureaucratese: We’re all going on a summer holiday – we just don’t know where, when or how.

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