The psychological impact of our ongoing uncertainty over travel


Uncertainty is tough on our mental wellbeing and the UK approach to travel quarantine adds to this

We faced a swift and severe pause to our lives as we knew them on March 23. When the UK went into lockdown, Britons lost many of our freedoms, from visiting our families and friends to our access to travel.

Weeks of quasi-groundhog-days, confinement to our homes accented only by exercise and food runs, were followed by a gradual, often confusing, easing of restrictions. Yet the path out of lockdown brought with it the hope of future travel: the possibility of cross-border family reunions, foreign holidays and respite for an ailing industry. Then, on June 8, a blanket quarantine for UK arrivals came into force. And, with it, a new wave of disappointment.

A few weeks later travel corridors were opened, to the relief of many. Yet this list of countries that you can travel to without facing quarantine on your return has been under review ever since. Spain, France, Croatia and Malta are among the 17 countries to have been struck from the “quarantine-free” list. Just seven have been added.

Now, each Thursday, hundreds of thousands of holidaymakers obsessively refresh news feeds – or the Twitter page of Transport Secretary Grant Shapps – to find out if their chosen holiday destination is next for the chop.

Liam Reeves, from Leyton, was among those keeping a close eye on France last month. Liam had just arrived in the Loire Valley with four friends, a trip to celebrate his 25th birthday, when it was announced that France would be added to the travel “red list,” effective from 4am the following Saturday. “We decided there was no point in trying to rush back considering everyone would have the same idea. Prices and availability reflected this,” said Liam.

However, when Liam returned home, going into isolation proved tougher than he’d expected. “I really struggled, he said. “You’re not allowed out to shop, meet friends outdoors or even exercise.”

As someone who has obsessive compulsive disorder and health anxiety (when worrying that you are ill can take over your life) for 10 years, the strict isolation rules prevented Liam from managing his conditions.

He explained: “I had worked hard to stop my compulsions, washing hands, disinfecting the house, and dealing with the subsequent obsessions – ‘I’m covered in germs; I could kill someone.’ I was now being told my irrational fears were completely valid and the best way to avoid the worst case scenario being realised was to indulge my compulsions.”

A recent review of the psychological impact of quarantine suggested that people with mental illness were at greater risk of poor mental health following self-isolation. Meanwhile, accordng to a study during the SARS outbreak, 31 per cent of people quarantined showed symptoms of depression afterwards.

A negative reaction to enforced isolation is not uncommon, particularly for those with a pre-existing mental health problems. Dr Sharie Coombes, a cognitive neuroscientist and neuropsychotherapist, says: “For some [self-isolation] has had a negative impact… there has been a big spike in people seeking support for their mental health [in recent months].”

The uncertainty surrounding travel quarantine rules, both for those working in the industry, and those planning a trip abroad, may also have an effect.

“We know that too much uncertainty makes mental wellbeing harder to achieve and can exacerbate mental health problems,” said Dr Coombes.

“People who have generally felt that [those in authority] have got things covered are starting to report that the lack of certainty being shown by our leaders is making it even harder to tolerate [the situation] and feel safe.”

Holidays are a precious source of respite for many. But now, for those that travel overseas, they come with added stress and worry. Take Molly Barber, from the Wirral, Merseyside. She is among the 180,000 Britons who were either in Portugal or due to travel there in recent days, and have been left thoroughly perplexed by the recent quarantine debacle

Last September, she, her partner and his parents had booked an 11-night trip for this August. “We were really stressed when trying to decide on whether to cancel our holiday or not as our workplaces were not happy for us to travel if there was no air bridge,” she explained. “We were worried that we would lose the £2,500 spent on the holiday [if we did cancel].”

Neither Molly nor her partner’s parents are able to do their jobs from home. If forced to quarantine, they would have lost two weeks of salary.

They were left on tenterhooks right up until Portugal was given a travel corridor on August 20. Yet, after arriving in the country, they’ve contended with the fear that quarantine could be imposed once more. 

This week, ahead of the quarantine updates, flights back from the Algarve were topping £550. On Wednesday, both British Airways and easyJet sold out seats for Friday, the last day to travel before the UK’s typical 4am quarantine deadline.

Travel quarantine uncertainty is also upsetting for those working in the travel industry. Some 39,000 people have already lost their jobs or have been told their roles are at risk. These cuts represent around 18 per cent of jobs in the industry, according to The Association of British Travel Agents.

Kuoni is among the travel companies to weather cuts. Derek Jones, chief executive of Kuoni parent company DER Touristik UK, said that refunding or moving every single holiday throughout the crisis has been a task the company never thought it would have to face. “It’s relentless. We’ve been very conscious that it is likely to take its toll on our team’s mental health at times.

“The blanket quarantine approach is devastating this industry. Those of us who have made careers in [travel] need some hope. Our customers need hope too because without a sign that travel can open up safely soon with a testing approach, nobody will be able to book with any confidence.”

Our Government’s quarantine policy, plus vary restrictions worldwide, make tricky to visit family overseas. Jessie Kelly, an Australian citizen who lives in London, has had to cancel two trips back home. In addition to UK quarantine on her return, she would have to contend with Australia’s strict rules, including self-isolation in a hotel on arrival – at her own cost – multiple Covid tests, and restrictions on travel between states.

“It’s a pretty horrible feeling not knowing when you’ll see family again,” said Jessie. “I was supposed to be flying out for two weddings this year and I’m missing out on seeing my 85-year-old grandmother.”

Whether you’re among those desperate to visit loved ones, or the hundreds of thousands whose holidays were tainted, if not cancelled, due to the current travel policy you’re likely to be itching for an alternative to the quarantine lottery.

Replacing ever-shifting travel restrictions with Covid tests at airports and ports could help to alleviate much of the current uncertainty.

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