How far can I travel and can I go abroad?

The UK is entering another lockdown. In a bid to reduce the rate of new infections, severe restrictions have been imposed on travel and activities, similar to those that were in place nationwide last March. 

While the four nations of the UK have slight differences in timing and rules, the basic principles are very similar.

The move will have a massive impact on prospective holidaymakers, business travellers and the industry.

These are the key issues, starting with travel within the UK.

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How far can I travel?

If you are working or have caring duties, as far as you need to.  But for everyone else, travelling anywhere beyond your local area is only permitted for a few specific reasons, including shopping for essentials or seeking medical treatment.

A “local area” is defined as “the village, town, or part of the city where you live”.

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The Scottish islands, except for Skye, are exempt from the new rules.

Will trains and buses continue to run?

Many of them will do so, as the government continues to provide capacity for key workers to travel to and from their employment. The cost to the taxpayer of running almost entirely empty trains is around £30m per day, while a few million pounds more are spent on local bus services.

Grand Central and Hull Trains – open-access rail firms that run on the East Coast main line in competition with government-funded LNER – are likely to cease operations entirely for as long as lockdown lasts.

During the first lockdown in March, the two main long-distance coach operators, National Express and Megabus, stopped operations entirely for several months.

Watch more

New January lockdown rules and restrictions explained

Can I travel to a beauty spot for exercise?

The rules for England stipulate that people can go out once a day to exercise, with their household (or support bubble) or one other person, but should not travel outside their local areas to exercise.

The government says: “You can travel a short distance within your area to do so if necessary (for example, to access an open space). 

“If you need to travel, walk or cycle where possible, and plan ahead and avoid busy times and routes on public transport. This will allow you to practice social distancing while you travel. Avoid car sharing with anyone from outside your household or your support bubble.”

A short drive to an outdoor location should qualify, if there are no reasonable alternatives nearby, but a 30-mile trip to the seaside would not.

While cycling is a legitimate form of exercise, rides that take you a long way from home will be deemed to be beyond your local area and therefore illegal.

Scotland’s government is more specific, citing: “Local outdoor recreation, sport or exercise, walking, cycling, golf, or running that starts and finishes at the same place (which can be up to 5 miles from the boundary of your local authority area) as long as you abide by the rules on meeting other households.

“Travel no further than you need to reach to a safe, non-crowded place to exercise in a socially distanced way.”

I have a second home. Can I go there to sit out lockdown?

No. “Holidays in the UK and abroad are not allowed,” says the UK government. “This includes staying in a second home or caravan, if that is not your primary residence.”

The Scottish government says: “Travelling for the purposes of undertaking essential work on a property other than your main residence should not be used as a pretext for a holiday. 

“You should not stay longer than for the length of time required to undertake the necessary work.”

Will there be pre-departure testing for UK-bound travellers?

There have been calls for tougher border restrictions, including from the former health secretary, Jeremy Hunt.

Airlines and airports have campaigned for many months for a testing regime before departure or on arrival. But ministers have always rejected the principle as ineffective, insisting on self-isolation on arrival instead.

Now the government is set for a U-turn with a demand that matches many countries worldwide, for a PCR test within 72 hours of travelling.   

The government will still insist on quarantine of 10 days, with early release if you test negative for coronavirus five days after arrival.

Some targeted flight bans will be deployed, such as that currently in force against South Africa. Such measures are of little effectiveness if passengers simply take alternative routes.

May I travel abroad?

Not unless you have a good excuse. “You can only travel internationally – or within the UK – where you first have a legally permitted reason to leave home,” says the government. 

Essential journeys are possible: for work, medical treatment, legal purposes or urgent compassionate reasons.

What happens to people on holiday right now?

Many travellers are abroad, enjoying the sunshine in Dubai, the Indian Ocean or the Portuguese island of Madeira. 

They are almost certainly at lower risk of contracting coronavirus in those locations than they would be in the UK.

The government says: “UK residents currently abroad do not need to return home immediately.”

They should be able to complete their holiday as planned and then travel back – going straight home from the airport.

In some cases, travel firms may require them to leave early.

For example if flights are being culled because of lack of customers, that could mean holidaymakers are told: “Either you fly home now or you are on your own.”

I have a holiday booked. What are my rights?

If you are booked on a proper package holiday through a company such as Tui, Jet2 or easyJet Holidays from now until the end of lockdown, the trip is almost certainly going to be cancelled. Once it is, then you are entitled to a full refund within two weeks.

For people who have booked flight-only deals, the situation is more complicated.

If your flight is cancelled, there is no argument: you are owed a full refund within a week. But if it goes ahead, then the airline may argue that it does not need to offer you money back, and that you can instead have a voucher or postpone your trip – potentially at extra cost.

Will airlines still fly?

Yes, but at greatly reduced scale.

In the spring lockdown of 2020, easyJet closed down completely for 11 weeks. Ryanair and British Airways retained a skeleton service of flights to provide essential connectivity.

Will this finish off the travel industry?

The direct financial impact of another lockdown will actually be significantly less than it was in March, April and May 2020. 

January is low season for much of the travel industry; apart from the February half term and some activity around Valentine’s Day (14 February), many travel companies sell at a loss in the first three months of the year.

The industry has already written off the winter-sun market; the first half of the ski season has been wiped out, and the second half looks in peril.

However, the highly unwelcome news of the lockdown is going to knock consumer confidence even further.

January should also be the month in which travel companies make an awful lot of cash: taking bookings from people who need a dream to anticipate after Christmas and the New Year are over. 

While a whole range of spring and summer holidays are on offer, the travel industry is selling a fraction of the normal number of holidays.

What are travel businesses saying?

That they are experiencing the third winter in a row (summer having been a disaster for most of them), and that this is the deepest.

With every attempt by travel firms to restart at scale seemingly thwarted because of new government restrictions, businesses are increasingly calling for help which they say is desperately needed if the UK is going to have a half-decent travel industry left by the time the coronavirus crisis is over.

A spokesperson for Abta, the travel association, said: “For ten months now, many travel businesses have been unable to generate income – putting jobs and businesses at risk – and the latest government measures mean this is unlikely to change soon.“

“Other countries, including France and Italy, have established targeted schemes in recognition of the unique challenges facing travel.”

Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, said: “It’s vital that any lockdown is accompanied by measures to support our aviation sector.

“If we cannot re-open travel the future of UK aviation will be bleak indeed.”

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