Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.
Imagine being told you must have a “special validation to travel”. Americans who wish to travel to North Korea are obliged to do just that.
Prospective visitors, says the US State Department, must also “discuss a plan with loved ones regarding care/custody of children, pets, property, belongings, non-liquid assets, funeral wishes, etc” and “draft a will and designate appropriate insurance beneficiaries”.
That’s enough to make you lose the will to travel. Which is exactly what the UK’s home secretary had in mind when she decided to impose a special validation to travel on anyone seeking to leave the country.
“There are still too many people coming in and out of our country each day,” Priti Patel told parliament in January.
UK residents are entitled to return home, making the inbound portion of that “too many” difficult to suppress – though deterrents such as the prospect of hotel quarantine are working some magic.
Instead, the home secretary set about increasing controls on anyone seeking to leave the UK. She decided to impose a requirement for a “Declaration to Travel” – a very British version of that “special validation”.
With just 58 hours remaining before it became a criminal offence even to turn up at an airport, railway station or ferry port without a completed form, the document was finally published.
It does not involve a side order of custody of children, funeral wishes and a last will and testament – though given the increasingly draconian travel restrictions put in place by the government, I wouldn’t have put it past them.
Ms Patel calls the Declaration to Travel “a necessary step to protect the public and our world-class vaccination programme”.
I call it the antithesis of the “Global Britain” for which we are expected to strive after Brexit – as well as an unnecessary and alarming extension of the government’s powers. The four UK nations share a perfectly powerful law at present: stay at home, and venture outside only if you can claim exemption such as caring, shopping for essentials, exercise or education.
Heading for an airport and hoping to board a plane somewhere warmer (and possibly less in tune with North Korea) is most definitely not on the list of excuses for being out of the house.
The home secretary has already said: “We will increase the police presence at ports and at airports, fining those in breach of the stay-at-home regulations.”
Which strikes me as quite sufficient. But the government wants to go one stage further, and introduce a new and insidious element of bureaucracy.
Alarmingly, the opposition is egging the home secretary on. This week the Labour chair of the Home Affairs select committee, Yvette Cooper, called for even tighter travel restrictions and cited Ms Patel in her support.
Kim Jong-Un would be proud.
The chorus across the political spectrum is that abroad represents some kind of existential threat – as though the UK would be just fine were it not for travellers.
International travel is entirely responsible for the rapid global spread of a virus that has cost millions of lives: no argument about that. But to pretend all our problems would be over if only borders were closed completely is as wrong as it is brazenly populist.
This is not Britain as I know it. Every new restriction on freedom, such as the ill-conceived Declaration to Travel, diminishes us, and our place in the world.