Business or leisure, contractors? Under the traffic-light travel system, it's all the same – cosmetic

To truly understand why your trip overseas for business or pleasure is going to be given a Red, Amber or Green light, UK contractors just like any other Briton need to go back to May 7th, writes Kevin Austin, managing director of overseas work advisory Access Financial.

New covid travel rules have applied since Monday

Back then, transport minister Grant Shapps announced that England would replace the travel restrictions which effectively made international journeys illegal, with something colourful -- a new traffic-light system, with countries designated Green, Amber or Red. This three-tier system is pressing if you want to go overseas now, because Mr Shapps’ changes came into force from May 17.

The devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each have their own similar coronavirus-related travel arrangements. But this piece will cover only the arrangements in England.

What is the new traffic-light system for travel?

Briefly, a traveller for business or pleasure can visit a ‘Green’ country and in so doing, requires only a covid-19 test on return to England. Even if you have been vaccinated, this requirement for a test still applies.

Similarly, if you’re reading this overseas and want to travel to England you must take a covid-19 test and book and pay for a ‘day 2’ test and this latter test must be taken after arrival in England. You must also complete a passenger locator form.

On arrival in England, the traveller must take a covid-19 test on or before day 2 after arrival. Exceptions to note are that children aged four-years-old and under do not need to take this test, and you do not need to quarantine unless the test result is positive. But incoming arrivals must quarantine if NHS ‘Test & Trace’ informs them that they travelled to England with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus.

Which countries are on the Green list?

Green list countries currently include Australia, Portugal, Singapore and New Zealand. It is the list with the fewest countries. But be aware, countries can change from Green to Amber and vice versa, so check the latest ‘Green’ list here, to be sure on status.

If you’re a Briton shortly off to visit an ‘Amber’ country, you must, before returning to England, take a covid-19 test; book and pay for day 2 and day 8 covid test (– to be taken after arrival in England). You must also complete a passenger locator form.

On arrival in England, you must quarantine at home or in the place you are staying for 10 days and take a covid test -- on or before day 2 and on or after day 8.

How to bring forward your quarantine end date

Potentially helpfully for some, you may be able to end quarantine early if you pay for a private covid-19 test through the Test to Release scheme.

Finally, if you have been in a country or territory on the ‘Red list’ in the last 10 days, you will only be allowed to enter the UK if you are a British or Irish National or have residence rights in the UK.

The rules to follow before returning to the UK (even if you have been vaccinated) are that you must take a covid test; you must book a quarantine hotel package including two covid tests and you must complete a passenger locator form. On arrival in England, you must also quarantine in a managed hotel, including in your stay 2 covid tests.

Covid travel relaxations affecting contractors

Crucially if you’re arriving in England for work, there are some relaxations which may affect you but note, these are for specific professionals only. Although they are too individual and detailed to cover in this piece, there are specific relaxations for contractors, where those contractors are involved in government, border and defence-related work. You can check the relaxations here.

Standing back from the detail of this multi-coloured system (which has had its fair share of critics in only its few days in operation), the obvious difference to the pre-May 17 rules is that there is no distinction made in the regulations for the purpose of travel. So the covid restrictions, procedures and requirements are now the same for business travellers and holiday-makers alike.

Countries are now key, not the cause of why you need to travel

To reiterate -- the motive of travel is no longer considered, and the regulations treat the countries differently rather than treating the reasons for the visit differently. The upshot is that a contractor in England is theoretically free to visit, say, Jamaica, for a holiday – or for work, but they must follow the rules for an ‘Amber’ country which Jamaica presently is. The practical obstacle is that the government’s general advice is that you should not travel to an Amber country, or a Red country.

Whether ‘business’ constitutes an essential reason for contractors or entrepreneurs to travel is a question of some debate. The government continues to advise against ‘non-essential’ travel. This means that people should not be travelling for leisure purposes and should only be travelling for the most important reasons, potentially including vital work, but perhaps more obviously -- for a funeral, or for medical purposes.

Mixed messages

Unhelpfully for contractors in England who might want to finish a project in Poland (Amber) or be in need of a luxury lounge-about in Aruba (Amber),  the messages from the government and the travel industry have been mixed.

Prime minister Boris Johnson told the BBC this week that Amber country travel implies an absolutely urgent or pressing business need.

But then health minister Matt Hancock said: “The official government advice is very clear that people should not travel to amber or red list countries or territories. People should not travel to amber list countries for a holiday.”

Despite the guidance, several major travel companies are still planning to offer travel to Amber countries, while they are not outright banned.

The risk of a Green country changing to Amber

Many of the government’s online notices since announcing the dozen safe (Green) list locations are couched with the warning that the entire situation is in flux. The government has repeatedly said this week it will keep the traffic light restrictions under constant review.

For people in England, the risk is that while you may holiday in today's Green country, you could find that while you are away, it shifts to an Amber country. So whether you’re contracting or holiday-making, take out insurance for any travel arrangements you can fix (if you can get such cover). And if possible, secure flight tickets that are flexible.

Underlining just how fast the situation is moving, in the ten days between the announcement of May 7 and the implementation of the changes, one Green country – Israel -- is at war, and the Indian variant of coronavirus has spread to the point that it is poised to upset all of the UK government's plans for further relaxations.

The Green list countries unravelled

More positively, the good news if you don’t want your own plans upset is that a British person does not need a visa to visit any of the territories/countries on the Green list. In the case of Australia, you will need an Electronic Travel Authorisation however, and for New Zealand, a New Zealand Electronic Travel Authorisation. This takes an hour to obtain.

But consider, Australia and New Zealand are virtually closed to tourism and Israel, as mentioned, is at war.

The other Green list locations of South Georgia, South Sandwich Islands, St Helena, Ascension, Tristan da Cunha, and Brunei are hardly popular holiday destinations for Britons. So for all practical purposes, the Green list comprises just one country – Portugal -- if you’re a contractor in the market for a summer holiday.

International travel: in appearance only

If you’re in the market for your own commercial purposes, only half of the list’s entrants would appear to have much scope for UK cross-border workers -- assuming that you can enter. It rather feels like the whole effort which the government is mounting to put up this Green list is more cosmetic than real.

Lastly, are there any tax aspects involved here? The conclusion is probably very few. Most cross-border work will take place remotely. We expect that to remain the case until the time comes that travel returns to being unrestricted again, and goes beyond being window dressing -- for all.

Profile picture for user Kevin Austin

Written by Kevin Austin

Kevin is a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, a Fellow of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, a Fellow of the Association of International Accountants and a Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute.

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