Safe Travel: the Possibilities and the Risks

When the 14-day quarantine on flights into the UK briefly came into effect in mid-June, people were looking at having to use their entire annual holiday allowance for a one-week trip abroad.  As for “air bridges”, i.e. less strict rules over and/or exemption from quarantine between certain lower risk countries: it happened, but it was (and is) tentative.  At the first sign of risk, the drawbridge goes up and the quarantine comes back into force.  Greece might have led the way in positivity, opening to tourists that same month, but many countries were far more cautious (we’re not talking about Sweden).  So, too, were travellers, especially after the about-turn in policy for those returning from Spain in July, and France, the Netherlands, and Malta (among others) in August.

Cruises might very well have once been popular, but they are now a style of vacationing far off over the distant horizon – but that’s apparently a very good thing indeed for whales and other sea mammals.  Early on during lockdown, researchers revealed that the decrease in low-frequency sound that usually polluted the underwater environment was astonishing in its sudden disappearance, permitting scientists like David Barclay, assistant professor of oceanography at Dalhousie University, the peace within which to listen to aquatic mammalian species – and truly determine the effects human water-based travel has on them.  Previously, the stress caused by humans had been recognised in baleen whales post-9/11 when ship travel dropped in the US.  As Michelle Fournet, a marine acoustician at Cornell University put it, “we are facing a moment of truth […] an opportunity to listen – and that opportunity will not appear again in our lifetime.”

Meanwhile, hotels and B&Bs domestically were chomping at the bit to re-open, yet weren’t permitted to do so until July, and then only if “self-contained”.  Therefore, “staycationing” seemed (and seems) that bit more attractive than it once perhaps did, not just so as to lessen the risk of catching anything in international transit, but also to assist our hospitality and tourism industry re-emerge from economic gloom – in a fashion.  Caravan and camper van sales saw a distinct rise in popularity, with Auto Trader reporting an 18% increase in interest.  It seems the appeal of being able to disinfect one’s own holiday environment was a very strong pull indeed… Certainly, it was a boon for Volkswagen sales, and Wellhouse Leisure, a camper van converter company (with a single day’s sales outnumbering any before in the near-20 years it has been operating).  With campsites spaced six metres apart, the summer was very much the caravaner’s oyster, then, and bookings for sites were up 35%.  There is little reason the Christmas period shouldn’t also see similar camping and caravan appreciation.

Of course, “travel” doesn’t always simply mean holidaying.  “Travel” can also refer to basic transport and the commute.  When questions of recovery were being asked and ways forward post the devastating economic impact of the pandemic being discussed, the charity Julie’s Bicycle released a letter pleading for a “Green Recovery” – a letter signed by some of the most well-known names in the world, and duly sent to the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, in June. 

As The Guardian reported, Sir Mark Rylance, The Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant, together with the leaders of the National Youth Theatre, the Tate, and the director of BBC Arts put their signature alongside numerous others, seeking the adoption of “green and carbon-cutting targets” alongside the economic, and meeting the UN’s SDG (Sustainable Development Goal) number 7 by the year 2030.  This continued concern for sustainability is heartening, given that there was a £74 billion drop in revenue in the cultural sector as a direct result of the lockdown (a sector which usually contributes £122 billion to the entire UK economy – more than aerospace or automotives).  Before that, though, Shell and BP had not been reapproached for sponsorship for either the National Youth Theatre or Royal Shakespeare company, respectively.

The ’i’, meanwhile, reported on research by Transport for London that found that the air quality within the capital’s tube network can be 15 times worse than city air on the streets above.  The paper also noted other studies which found public transport use during a pandemic increases the chance of catching an acute respiratory virus sixfold.  To offset this, pick off-peak hours and avoid conversing with your fellow travellers: a study published in PNAS in May found that regular speech produces respiratory droplets which can hang on the air for as long as 8 minutes.  No breath-holding efficacy there, it seems.  You might also want to forgo the snacking.

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