Whether heading for a scorching Mallorca beach or dancing beneath neon flags at a music festival, millions of people will be hoping for a Covid-free summer. But it isn’t working out like that. With soaring infections once more, how can people make sure they stay safe and keep holiday plans on track?
How vulnerable am I to getting Covid on a plane or train?
Crowded spaces are ideal for spreading infection, and the dominant Omicron strains BA.4 and BA.5 are reported to evade antibody immunity effectively and are spreading about a third faster than previous variants. So you may feel dismayed at having to squeeze into your seat on the plane next to a stranger who keeps clearing their throat.
But planes have an unfair reputation as reservoirs of infection, experts say, and the actual risk is lower than in many indoor environments. For trains and other transport it depends on how busy they are and whether they have modern ventilation systems. “Definitely consider wearing a mask in crowded areas, on public transport, and in the airport where there’s a crowd,” said Prof Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong. “On the plane itself, ventilation is excellent so the risk is actually lower in your seat.”
Masks: to wear or not to wear?
Masks may feel like a thing of the past to some in the UK, but this isn’t the case in all countries, so check the rules before you set off. Italy, for instance, has retained a requirement to wear an FFP2 mask on public transport, with the exception of planes. Some airlines have also maintained a mandate.
You may also be motivated by wanting to be a responsible citizen, or by self-preservation. In this case, an FFP2 mask, which filters out potentially infectious particles in the air, is better than a cloth or disposable paper mask. “If you’re concerned, I’d strongly advise a mask,” said Dr Stephen Griffin, an associate professor at the University of Leeds. “It’s been turned into this token of freedom but it’s sensible and not much of a hassle. It’s a no-brainer. Why spoil your holiday feeling rubbish?”
Festivals and clubbing
This summer festivals are back, from Primavera in Spain to Tomorrowland, the world’s largest dance music festival, in the Belgium town of Boom. Do these huge gatherings lead to outbreaks? Anecdotally a lot of people reported testing positive for Covid after Glastonbury, but then 200,000 people attended and about one in 30 people in England had Covid last week. It’s hard to pinpoint whether events like this make much difference to overall numbers at this stage.
If you’re trying to assess your own risk, common sense applies: indoor, crowded places make transmission more likely. This scenario may be relevant at a festival or in a nightclub, but equally to highbrow holiday pursuits such as an afternoon in a stuffy museum or crowded art gallery, or exploring the vaults of a medieval church.
“The one time I’ve been abroad recently was a microbiology conference in Northern Ireland, where I got Covid,” said Griffin. “I’d put all the provisions in place for the conference to be Covid safe, but came back with Covid. I’m pretty sure I caught it in a restaurant.”
And what about outside – on the beach or at a campsite?
Outdoor spaces are generally low risk and if anything people tend to have fewer social contacts while on holiday. “Often people are with their families and they’re not usually making huge numbers of contacts outside their household, being off work and off school,” said Prof John Edmunds, of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. “Actually being on holiday is not particularly high risk. There’s exceptions – going clubbing and in bars – but I don’t want to stop people from having fun.”
Should I take a Covid test before I fly?
Again, check the rules for your destination. Many places in Europe no longer require you to arrive at the check-in anxiously clutching a bundle of paperwork, but testing requirements have not evaporated across the board. UK travelers need to show a vaccine certificate or show a negative result from a PCR test taken within 72 hours or an antigen test taken within 48 hours pre-departure. Spain and Portugal have similar requirements. Outside Europe there is a spectrum of strictness.
Beyond the rules, should travelers feel a moral duty to take a test? Edmunds says he does not want to “tell people what to do”, but notes that a well-established rule of medical screening is that there’s no point in taking a test if you’re not going to act on a positive result.
“If someone tests themselves, finds out that they’re positive and goes anyway, what’s the point of that?” he said. “Ideally if you’re positive you shouldn’t be getting on an airplane or public transport, you are putting other people at risk.”
At a time when many are struggling financially, canceling a flight is painful. But some airlines still have specific refund rules if a flight has to be changed due to Covid and offer more flexibility about changing flights than pre-pandemic.
Do I need to show a vaccine pass?
In some places, including the US, vaccination is an absolute requirement. For other destinations, no vaccine means taking tests. For anyone eligible for a booster or children who haven’t had their first dose, it may be a particularly good time to get up to date. “We know that booster doses give that top-up of protection against severe disease, but for a couple of months the dose also gives relatively good protection against infection,” said Cowling. “It’s the time to get the jab if you’re due for one.”
If I get Covid abroad, will I need to self-isolate?
Some countries, such as the UK, now have minimal legal isolation requirements. But France and Italy, for instance, still mandate seven days’ isolation after a positive test. At the extreme end, some countries require hotel or hospital-based quarantine. “One of my PhD students ended up spending 18 days in an isolation room in hospital in Shanghai while traveling to visit family,” said Cowling. “It could be a different kind of holiday from what you’d planned if you spend it in an isolation room.”
Where are Covid rates going to be highest and lowest?
Coronavirus cases have increased steeply in recent weeks, with the latest figures showing about 2.3m across the UK last week. But at this stage, with high overall prevalence and many countries scaling back surveillance, it’s hard to pinpoint with much certainty which countries are going to be the hotspots two months from now. “It’s difficult enough to predict what’s going to happen in the UK, and we’ve got better data than everywhere else,” said Edmunds. “I don’t think it’s possible to do that with any accuracy.”