Italy has seen its seven-day case rate double over the last month, from 10.8 per 100,000 residents (August 20-26) to 19.6 (September 22-28), and many fear it will be added to the UK’s quarantine list when the Government reviews its controversial travel policy on Thursday.
Such a move would leave Britons with even fewer options for a last-minute holiday, and give those already in the country less than 36 hours to return to UK soil or face a two-week quarantine. So what are the chances that this will happen?
The quarantine threshold
Several weeks ago, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps revealed that the Government had a quarantine threshold. Should another country’s seven-day case rate pass 20 per 100,000 then it would consider imposing travel restrictions. Little leeway was permitted, with the likes of Switzerland, Croatia, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands each placed on the quarantine naughty step just days after breaching this apparently arbitrary barrier.
Since the heady days of summer, however, Britain’s own case rate has risen. It now stands at 60.7, three times the old threshold. Therefore logic would suggest an extra degree of leniency is in order. After all, if the purpose of quarantine is to prevent contagion from “high-risk” areas, then any country with a lower infection rate than Britain ought to be free from restrictions. Early evidence suggests that may not be the case. Last week Slovakia was removed from the travel corridors list despite a case rate only a smidge above 20 per 100,000 (it has since risen to 47.5 – more on that in a minute).
If the threshold of 20 remains, Italy (currently at 19.6) does appear on the brink of quarantine. However, case rate isn’t the only factor in play.
Rising or falling?
When considering travel restrictions, the Department of Health claims to consider a raft of criteria. These include “the prevalence of coronavirus in a country/territory” (ie. the case rate) but also “trajectory of the disease in that country”. This factor could be Italy’s saving grace. Yes, cases have risen in the country, but relatively slowly – and they now look to be levelling off.
Here are the numbers of new daily cases in the past fortnight: 1,450, 1,585, 1,906, 1,638, 1,587, 1,349, 1,392, 1,640, 1,786, 1,912, 1,869, 1,766, 1,493, 1,648. That certainly isn’t a trajectory that suggests Italy is struggling to manage the virus.
Belgium, Austria and the Netherlands were removed from the travel corridors list soon after crossing the threshold of 20, but their trajectories were far steeper. Today, Belgium’s case rate stands at 104, Austria’s is 54, and it is 88 in the Netherlands. Slovakia looked hard done by last week, but now the rate is 47.5, the decision is slightly more understandable (but not entirely justified – ours is still significantly higher). On this point, Italy – and, indeed, Greece and Sweden – could be spared this week.
The Department of Health’s other criteria include “testing rates, positivity and strategy”. This presents no concern for Italy, which has one of the highest testing rates in Europe (behind only the UK, Spain, Russia and Germany).
Then there’s “imported infections to the UK”. I (and other journalists) have asked the Government to provide data on how many infections have arrived from abroad, and from which destinations, but this is information it either doesn't have or isn’t willing to share.
Finally, there’s “volume of passengers coming into the UK from that country”. I’m not convinced this makes much difference, given the fact that Slovakia, hardly the autumn holiday hotspot, was binned last week. Even if it does matter, it should not be a concern for Italy: the number of Britons visiting the country right now is bound to be tiny compared to a normal September.
The Government – months after being urged to do so – finally adopted a more regional approach to quarantine on September 7, meaning islands (like the Covid-free Azores) may be considered separately to the rest of a country (in this case, Portugal). It means that even if Italy is put on the quarantine list, its islands could remain exempt. Conversely, mainland Italy might stay on the green list but one or more of its islands could be ditched (as has happened with Greece).
Italy only has two islands with direct flights to the UK: Sicily and Sardinia. So how are they faring? Sicily still looks a solid bet, with a seven-day case rate of 16 per 100,000, but Sardinia’s has reached 30. If you are going to risk a last-minute holiday to Italy, Sardinia might not be the most sensible choice.
When it comes to quarantine – or any restrictions on our liberty, for that matter – nobody can predict with much certainty what this blundering, arse-covering government will decide to do.
However, the evidence would suggest that Italy (with the possible exception of Sardinia) will be spared for another week at least. But you book at your own risk, so look for airlines and hotels that offer free cancellation or rebooking, and check your travel insurance carefully.
And remember that the quarantine list is amended every Thursday, with changes effective from 4am the following Saturday, so choose your flight times wisely.