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Lurching towards a new era in freedom of movement

At the end of May, I stuffed some clothes and a couple of literary periodicals into a rucksack and headed for Stansted airport, north-east of London. I was flying with two old and dear friends to Porto, Portugal’s second city, to watch our team, Manchester City, play in the Champions League Final. This was the first time City had reached the final and, almost as significant, the first time any of us had left these shores in months. We were like giddy teenagers preparing for their first holiday abroad without their parents.

Non-essential travel had only resumed on May 17, when Portugal was placed on the UK’s “green” list of 12 countries for which quarantine was not automatically required. Because we were staying only two nights, one negative PCR test for Covid-19 taken up to 72 hours before departure would be sufficient to get in and out of Portugal. I paid a government-approved provider £160 for a test in London the afternoon before I was due to fly and another £60 for one that I was to administer at home two days after my return.

Waiting for the results was excruciating. I had no Covid symptoms and had received one dose of the vaccine, so I knew a positive test, while possible, was unlikely. But I also knew that if the results did come back positive, I’d be several hundred pounds out with nothing to show for it. A few minutes after taking the test I received an email headed “Your sample is now being tested”, which did nothing to calm the nerves.

At Stansted airport the next morning, following the all-clear, small pockets of travellers, most of us heading for the match, rattled around Norman Foster’s airy terminal building. I’d been expecting more tourist traffic ahead of the approaching half-term holiday for schools. But the financial and bureaucratic burden of testing was, it seemed, a powerful disincentive to travel, especially for families.

After arriving in Porto, a delightful city just inland from the Atlantic coast, we met up with a group of friends from Manchester and ate and drank royally — returning to our accommodation before the 10.30pm curfew, of course. My memory of how the wine and conversation flowed among old acquaintances convening after a long absence is at least as strong as the sting of disappointment at defeat by Chelsea.

Needless to say, none of what we went through to reach Porto is a reliable guide to what European travel will be like for British citizens in the post-pandemic era. Indeed, only a few days later, Grant Shapps, the UK’s transport secretary, announced that Portugal would be moved on to the government’s “amber” list, meaning that anyone returning from there would have to spend 10 days in quarantine.

The measures, which came into force in the early hours of June 8, left British holidaymakers rushing to book early flights home. “Covid chaos at airports in rush to flee Portugal” roared one newspaper front page, as if the queue at the Ryanair desk at Faro airport was akin to the desperate scramble to board the last helicopter out of Saigon in 1975.

This is probably how things will go for a while: the old, familiar rhythm of high season and low replaced by an altogether less predictable lurching back and forth between one entry regime and another.

Nor is it just Covid that is reshaping travel between the UK and EU, of course. There’s Brexit to consider, too. When I arrived in Porto I had my passport stamped, a reminder that Britain is a “third country” now.

The era of free movement around the EU, which was established by the 1992 Maastricht treaty, coincided with the explosion in low-cost air travel. Free movement has now come to an end for those of us from the UK. And it’s not clear yet what lasting changes the pandemic will have inflicted on cheap flights.

Things will certainly be different, with new frictions and frustrations. But it may help to remember how constrained foreign travel was for ordinary Brits as recently as 1969. I recently read the transcript of a House of Commons debate from that year in which MPs debated the merits of preventing people from travelling with more than £50 in foreign currency, a measure introduced by the Wilson government three years earlier. One backbench Conservative MP denounced it, noting that “foreigners” regarded it as “quite despicable and contrary to the whole spirit of trade liberalisation”.

When frustrated by longer queues at passport control, we will at least be able to count our blessings that government control over how much we have in our wallets is no longer considered acceptable.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter @jderbyshire and email him at [email protected]

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