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  • Luke Dowding

Amber Management

Navigating the practical and moral complexities of international travel from the UK.


When travelling abroad you might notice that the amber traffic light could mean something very different from the country you’re from. Often it indicates a need for the driver to prepare themselves to either slow down (and stop) or prepare to drive again; how this is applied varies quite significantly from country to country. Similarly so for restrictions on international travel, and it’s in the UK where the so-called “traffic light system” seems to be open for most negotiation. Should we view this as a command to stop travel to these destinations but perhaps ready ourselves to go again if they switch to green, or is there room to see this as a caution to move slowly, mindfully, and with some restriction?


As with almost every other element of the restrictions that have been imposed during the past 15 months, there is no clear answer – with the government clearly making travel legal, but sort of asking us not to do it. Much to the irritation of many.


Legally it is absolutely permissible to travel internationally again, now without the need for a qualifying reason (which themselves were fairly vague and hard to validate). To replace the ban, we now have the green, amber, and red lists which determine what the traveller who chooses to leave the UK has to do upon their return. This applies to all travellers, including fully vaccinated adults – although there is some talk that this might soon change for amber list destinations. If this does come to be, then fully vaccinated adults will, allegedly, not need to self-isolate upon returning to the UK and jump through the current testing hoops required. Although my guess is that the tests currently required for green list destinations would then apply. In my mind this remains a nonsense, with the rhetoric on vaccinations, lockdowns, and travel restrictions still just as contradictory as it was during the period of last summer’s “travel corridors”. What are we obsessively vaccinating for (and casting moral judgement upon those who don’t) if it’s not to enable us to not live lives with such restriction?


So, what are the requirements? Keep in mind that this is only what the UK requires to return, not what the destination might require for entry. For example, I did not need to travel with a proof of negative test, and/or proof of vaccination when I travelled to Albania in May.



Tirana, May 2021


Brits returning from green destinations (a very small list currently): a single pre-departure to the UK test is required, followed by a test on day 2 of return.


Returning from an amber destination (the vast majority of the world at this point) requires the same tests as above, and the following:

  • An optional day 5 “test to release”, which if negative allows you to leave your self-imposed isolation earlier than 10 days,

  • A mandatory day 8 test (unless you tested positive on day 2, in which case you don’t need to take the day 8 test).

When returning from Albania I used the following (the cheapest at the time of research):

  • Return to the UK test (within 72 hours before departure) – Qured, £39 (+ BA discount applied. Other airlines have similar arrangements with different providers),

  • Day 2 and 8 test – Testing For All, £99. These are released based on availability, so you do need to keep an eye on the website to get the dates you need.

  • Day 5 test to release – Collinson, £95. I opted to travel to Heathrow to increase my chances on getting a same day result – which worked, waiting about 12 hours for it to come through. Don’t get me started on the irony of being permitted to travel to get a test when other options are available – but those are the rules of capitalism, my friends!

Red country lists come with the heftiest price tags, with mandatory hotel isolation (from a government approved list). This includes the day 2 and 8 tests, but you need to take a pre-departure test before travel. According to gov.uk “you will only be allowed to enter the UK if you are a British or Irish National, or you have residence rights in the UK.”


It’s worth noting that the tests provided for free by the NHS are not considered suitable for any of the return to the UK tests, and so you must purchase tests for an independent and private provider. Make of that what you will…


So technicalities aside, should we be travelling right now?


Quite simply I can see no logical reason to not do so, if you have the means to follow the law upon returning to the UK (regardless of what you think of those laws). A good traveller will always be mindful of their behaviour, acknowledging that their actions have consequences, and that whatever we do has an impact – good or bad. It is perfectly possible, to my mind, to be able to travel well right now, perhaps proved by the very fact that leaders of the G7 countries and their enormous entourages descended on Cornwall recently?


I understand, but don’t agree with, the arguments that call for us to hunker down and wait for the virus to pass, or for us all to be vaccinated against it – as neither seems particularly realistic, especially from a global perspective. Even if we were to follow the example of Australia or New Zealand and close our borders “entirely” (which arguably is just not practical for the UK), we would still see cases pop up – as they have done there.


If we are to believe the narrative that has been shared since the government realised that the majority of the population didn’t like phrases such as “herd immunity” and therefore had to change their public-facing plan, then we’ve done what we were asked to do – lockdown to prevent as much as possible the elderly and vulnerable from becoming sick to the point of critical illness, and attempt to keep pressure off the NHS (arguably not the tax-payers responsibility but the government’s – but I digress).


So, I’ll follow the law and guidelines – wear a mask when asked to, keep my distance as much as possible, wash my hands regularly (but seriously, why weren’t you doing this one before?), and if I feel unwell – I’ll stay at home. But the virus isn’t going anywhere, and so the only option we have is how we choose to respond to it. Many of us have spent the last year or so living in fear, so let’s instead move away from that and equip ourselves with the tools of critical thought and an educated, reasoned outlook.

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