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On 8 November, the United States is reopening its borders to travelers originating in the Schengen Area, China, India, Ireland, Iran, Brazil, South Africa, and, of course, the United Kingdom, and while this is certainly a move to be welcomed, anyone taking this as a sign that US travel bans are a thing of the past could be being a little optimistic.
I don’t think that it should escape anyone’s attention that our government has been in no hurry to lift the current travel ban and that we’re only seeing it take the steps that it’s now taking because it has been subjected to significant pressure from foreign governments and powerful travel industry lobbyists. I can’t help but feel that if the Biden administration thought that it could get away with it, we wouldn’t see the current travel bans lifted before next year (when more boosters have been rolled out and agencies have had a chance to assess the flu season at home and abroad).
Still, the bans *are* being lifted (which is great), and families that have been kept apart for far too long for reasons that are definitely not based on “the science”, will finally get to reunite and can start to make up for lost time. But for how long?
Its highly likely that the government is continuing to closely monitor the infection rates, the vaccination rates, and a whole host of other indicators in the counties and regions from where travel will shortly once again be permitted, and it can’t have failed to notice that some of these countries are seeing significant spikes in infection rates.
More worryingly, these spikes are occurring in countries with good vaccination rates (better rates than the US) and this could be concerning to the US government and something which may prompt it to reconsider its border policy.
A few of the Schengen Area countries are seeing spikes in infection rates but unless things really get out of hand, I don’t think that there’s any real chance that the US will shut down travel from mainland Europe again. That would be seen as a very sudden reversal in policy which would affect a lot of nations and it would cast serious doubt on the decision making that has led to the travel bans being lifted on 8 November.
In an ideal world, the government would probably like to keep open the option of banning travel from select Schengen Area countries where infection rates are on the rise, but the freedom of movement permitted within that area would make such a ban impossible to police and more than a little pointless – you either ban travel from the whole area (which would be an embarrassing u-turn for the government) or you don’t have a ban at all.
When it comes to the UK, however, the story is different.
The UK is not part of the Schengen Area and its citizens do not enjoy freedom of movement within Europe so their travels can be monitored with ease. What’s more, the UK has seen a significant rise in infection rates over the past few months and the rates are still not under control. For a government that’s as fixated on infection rates as this one is, that almost certainly concerning.
A few weeks ago (when the US announced that it would reopen its borders), the UK’s infection rate wasn’t a huge discussion point at home let alone abroad, but there are now some very big concerns being raised.
The main concern in the UK isn’t one that surrounds the death rate – the death rate is still considerably lower than it was at the height of the pandemic – but, instead, the main concern surrounds the hospitalization rate.
As the UK heads into winter, a combination of new COVID cases, the flu season, and a whole variety of other illnesses could raise the very real prospect that the nation’s National Health Service will be overwhelmed.
Our government probably won’t lose too much sleep over the UK’s troubles with the NHS, but it will probably be very interested in why its COVID numbers are spiking. More specifically, it will have noticed that the spike isn’t just down to idiots refusing the vaccine and that we now have good evidence to suggest that the effect of the vaccines is wearing off.
That’s not the kind of news the US government wants to hear.
The UK and the US may be long-term allies, but Biden and Johnson are far from the best of friends, so if Biden decides that he’s worried about the significant number of unvaccinated people here at home (where the infection rates are clearly on the way down) and the risk that potentially infectious visitors from the UK pose to them, there’s a real chance that he’ll decide that it’s time to reclose the border to travel from the UK if the UK doesn’t get its infection rate under control and heading in the right direction.
It’s tempting to say that this isn’t going to happen because it would be a regressive step (which it would be) and because it would be embarrassing to the US administration, but I don’t think that last part is necessarily true.
Reclosing the border to the 26 countries of the Schengen Area would undoubtedly be embarrassing, but would reclosing the border to travel from the UK really be seen as that big of a deal on the US political stage?
Yes, it would annoy the airlines (it could put United’s recently announced plans into question) and a few lobbyists would see their blood pressures rise, but that’s not going to be enough to deter an administration that is clearly fixated on keeping US infection rates on a downward trajectory until it gets a lot more people fully vaccinated and until it has administered a lot more booster shots than it has up until now.
Keep in mind the following:
- Only 58% of the US population is fully vaccinated
- We have evidence that fully vaccinated people can still get COVID-19 and can still transmit the disease.
- We know that the tests that the US requires visitors to take before they travel are not robust enough to ensure that infectious people don’t enter the United States.
- We know that the US government was reluctant to lift the travel ban in the first place.
With all of that in mind, can anyone really say that the US won’t reclose its border to travelers from single nation if that nation has a spiking infection rate?
Allow me to be very clear on what I’m saying here: I’m not saying that the US *will* close its borders to the UK at some point this winter.
What I’m saying is that the US reopening on 8 November is not a sign that we’re back to normal, that things are now all going to head in a positive direction and that the travel world will slowly go back to where it was in 2019.
While the US still has a sizeable percentage of its population that remains unvaccinated, there is a reasonable chance that this administration will not be scared to reintroduce travel restrictions on individual nations where infection rates are spiking. Right now, that puts the UK at risk.