What's the Situation for Scuba Diving Holidays this Summer?
In the next few weeks, the UK government will be announcing its 'Green List' of countries to which it will be deemed safe to travel. Some countries are waiting for divers to arrive as much as divers are waiting to travel, but what will taking a scuba diving holiday this year entail? Mark 'Crowley' Russell takes a look at the current situation
Indications are that, in just a few week's time, travel corridors will be opened up for tourists to flee the confines of lockdown. There will be a traffic light system in place with different criteria for PCR test requirements and periods of quarantine and how that quarantine will be applied upon returning to the UK.
According to various reports in the UK press, a country's position on each list will be decided on the following criteria:
- The percentage of the destination country’s population that has been vaccinated
- The current rate of infection in that country
- The prevalence of 'variants of concern' (eg the South African variant; Brazilian variant, etc.)
- The destination country’s access to reliable scientific data and genomic sequencing capabilities
The requirements for each list on the traffic-light system, as posted on the UK Government's Travel Taskforce website at the time of publication, are as follows:
GREEN: arrivals will need to take a pre-departure test as well as a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test on or before day 2 of their arrival back into England - but will not need to quarantine on return (unless they receive a positive result) or take any additional tests, halving the cost of tests on their return from holiday. (Note - some news outlets are reporting that you will need a second test after 8 days but the government guidelines say this is not the case.)
AMBER: arrivals will need to quarantine for a period of 10 days and take a pre-departure test, and a PCR test on day 2 and day 8 with the option for Test to Release on day 5 to end self-isolation early
RED: arrivals will be subject to restrictions currently in place for ‘red list’ countries which include a 10-day stay in a managed quarantine hotel, (at your expense) pre-departure testing and PCR testing on day 2 and 8
What does this mean?
Practically speaking it means that any traveller will need to take a minimum of two Covid-19 tests – and probably three – even if they are fully vaccinated, and up to four, depending on which list the destination country occupies.
Pre-departure tests must be taken a maximum of 72 hours before flying and must be performed at a government-approved establishment. PCR tests currently cost around £120-£160 per test, although an announcement on Thursday, 29 April, suggested that the government is pressing for a testing kit that will cost a more reasonable £45.
There is some confusion over the type of testing that is required. There is a cheaper alternative to PCR known as an 'Antigen' test - often referred to as the 'lateral-flow test'. In simple terms (click here for a longer explanation), PCR tests determine if a person currently has the coronavirus present in their body; antigen tests determine if a person is currently infectious. Antigen tests are much cheaper (currently priced at around £30), but they vary in accuracy and must meet acceptable testing standards.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that government travel advice regarding the testing required to enter the UK is contradictory. As of Friday, 30 April, the UK government travel advice for entering England is that you need a 'Covid-19 test', which could be either a PCR or LAMP test (expensive) or an antigen test, such as a lateral flow test (cheaper)
But - the Traffic Light system as described above, clearly states that PCR tests are required. It would probably be wisest, therefore, at least in the short term, to go for the PCR option which is guaranteed to be accepted wherever a test is required.
The prices in destination countries for the return pre-departure test vary quite dramatically. For example, a PCR test in Spain for passengers travelling with Vueling is available for €60. A PCR test at St James hospital in Sliema, Malta, currently costs €140 - although an antigen test costs just €30.
Regardless of which tests are taken, even the lower-cost option means that each passenger will be paying the equivalent of a pre-covid budget flight to Malta or the Balearics in tests. If it turns out that the cheaper tests are not available, then travellers may be faced with having to shell out more money than an entire off-season holiday would cost.
Where can I get a test?
In the UK, check the Government's list of private providers of coronavirus testing
For other countries, ask your airline or tour operator. Some have arrangements with clinics in the destination country. Love them or loathe them, Ryanair has this excellent list of information and clinics in many of its destinations:
What happens if I fail a test?
If your pre-departure PCR test returns a positive result then you won't be able to fly. If you can arrange another test before you fly and it returns a negative result then this supersedes the positive result and you will be allowed to board
If you return a positive test and are unable to fly, some airlines - such as this example from Qatar Air - are offering rescheduling options or a refund on submission of medical evidence of the positive result. Most probably won't.
If this happens prior to departure in your home country, clearly it's disappointing but you can return home. If it happens in your destination, you will have to fork out for a 14-day quarantine at your own expense, and book another flight home. And take (and pay for) more tests.
What if I've been vaccinated?
Despite being promised as the light at the end of the tunnel for Covid-19 restrictions, there is no guarantee that even a fully vaccinated traveller will be allowed to enter a country without a pre-flight PCR test – it depends on which section of their own traffic light system the UK is listed. In the case of Malta, for example, a press release issued on 31 March stated that from 1 June, that fully vaccinated UK passengers will be welcomed back to Malta without having to present a negative PCR test before boarding the flight.
As this policy is not expected to take effect until 1 June, the UK's current status as an Amber List country will mean that a pre-departure PCR test in the UK will still be required, regardless of whether the traveller is fully vaccinated or not.
The underlying problem is that vaccine programmes internationally are not running at the same pace, and rates of infection vary greatly between nations. Leaving the politics aside, countries such as the UK and Israel have surged ahead with their vaccine programmes while others are still catching up; rates of infection in the UK are at their lowest levels for a year, in other places – France, for example – they are on the rise.
Once vaccine uptake and infection rates become more settled, then travelling between countries that consider each other to be 'green' will likely mean fewer tests and no mandatory quarantine, but that will probably be a fairly short list, at least for the immediate future.
So which countries will be on the Green List?
Difficult to tell at this stage but the provisional list being circulated in the media is:
Antigua, Barbados, Falkland Islands, Finland, Gibraltar, Greece, Grenada, Iceland, Israel, Malta, Morocco, Portugal, Seychelles, Spain, Sri Lanka, St Helena, St Lucia, The Maldives, Turks & Caicos.
There are clearly some top dive countries included on that list but others – Egypt, Mexico, much of the Caribbean and the entirety of the Asia-Pacific region are missing. That does not mean they will be completely off-limits, but possibly placed onto the Amber lists. It's worth pointing out, however, that popular destinations such as Egypt, Indonesia, Mexico and Curaçao – among others – have well-established vaccine programmes that are progressing apace.
Will I need a vaccine passport?
At some point, probably, yes. Maybe. Do they exist? No. Will they? Possibly. Confused? Definitely.
Some countries – including Iceland, Portugal, Israel and (potentially) Malta – will not be requiring pre-flight PCR tests for those who have been fully vaccinated. So how do you prove that you've been fully vaccinated?
There are various programmes in development, including a Europe-wide 'Digital Green Certificate' - or 'Covid Passport' as non-politicians call it, which will probably have an associated app.
As for the time being, the advice is currently sketchy, but for UK citizens, current vaccination status is displayed in your medical records, to which all UK residents have electronic access via the NHS App (which is NOT the same as the Track and Trace App) and Patient Access website. People who don't have access to the app can ask their GP for a written certificate.
Should I stay or should I go?
The big question. Divers will travel to the ends of the Earth to get their underwater fix, and we have been sorely missing our favourite scuba diving hotspots.
On the one hand, much of the dive business has already been lost, and those that remain need our help if they are to survive. On the other hand, the question of travelling, and with it the fear of contracting or spreading the virus, is an emotional one.
In purely scientific, numerical terms, the risk of catching Covid-19 is low, and the risk of becoming seriously ill or dying lower – but they are very real risks, and they can have terrible consequences.
We, as divers, take risks every time we get into the water, and so before we do that, we make checks and plans and analyse conditions to reduce the chances of accidents and injuries. If we are prepared to accept the risks to health and wealth that travelling abroad will bring this year, and we do so fully informed of the dangers, and if we take steps to protect ourselves and each other through good hygiene, social distancing and other preventative practises then – in my personal and humble opinion – yes, we should.
Absolutely, we should.
Note - the information and situations regarding foreign travel are fluid and change rapidly. We'll put more travel articles up in the coming weeks once the green lists are announced and when the various restrictions are lifted, but we've been waiting a long time, and it's time to get the travel ball rolling once again.