Simon Marks: Biden says America is back, but you still can't visit

9 June 2021, 19:51

Joe Biden is making his first overseas visit to the UK, but what does that mean for those either side of the Atlantic?
Joe Biden is making his first overseas visit to the UK, but what does that mean for those either side of the Atlantic? Picture: PA
Simon Marks

By Simon Marks

Biden says America is back, but you still can't visit it.

I know, I know….I’m not supposed to allow my own personal situation to colour my view of the upcoming Presidential visit to the UK. But I fear on this occasion I can’t help it.

Thrilled though I am to hear lots of fresh commentary about the “special relationship” between Washington and London, for plenty of people on both sides of the Atlantic the next few days will come down to one central issue: is the relationship so special that those of us on both sides of the water will once again be able to visit each other?

Read more: Joe Biden touches down in the UK ahead of G7 summit with Boris Johnson

Read more: G7: Government accused of 'betrayal' as 'unvaccinated police travel to Cornwall'

The current position taken by both countries is untenable: fully-vaccinated travellers from the US (numbering now more than 40% of the US population) are treated exactly the same by the UK authorities as unvaccinated travellers if they want to visit the Tower of London, wander the streets of Stratford-upon-Avon or - in my case - visit family members I haven’t been able to see for 16 months.

The USA is firmly on the “Amber List”, so we’re all required to quarantine for ten days, whether or not we’ve had the jab.

Equally, anyone in the UK who has already been vaccinated and wants to take the kids to Disneyland, have a flutter in Las Vegas or go to the top of the Empire State Building is out-of-luck this summer.

The US is firmly closed to you.So much for President Biden’s much-vaunted claim - to be repeated regularly over the next few days - that “America is back”.

If the Biden and Johnson governments trust the vaccines, then let fully vaccinated people travel between the two countries without delay.

Or, explain to the public and the beleaguered travel industry at precisely what point they will sufficiently trust the vaccines to permit quarantine-free travel to resume.

Read more: Restart travel between UK and US, aviation bosses tell Boris Johnson and Joe Biden

Read more: G7 summit 2021: Dates, Cornwall location and participating countries revealed

Additionally, let’s all stop pretending that there is equivalence between fully vaccinated travellers and entirely unvaccinated travellers.

There isn’t, which is why it would be perfectly reasonable to require quarantine on either side of the Atlantic for anyone who hasn’t had the jab - a move that would have the added advantage of creating fresh incentives for the unvaccinated in both countries to make their appointments with the needle.

If there isn’t substantial movement in the next few days on the issue of trans-Atlantic travel, the entire summer season will be lost.

That will be a fresh disaster for airlines demanding an immediate restoration of travel. It will also be a blow for countless families that want to be reunited (mine included), business travellers who want to get back to work (like me) and youngsters who are preparing to study on the other side of the Atlantic (like my eldest. See? I told you it was personal).

Several other issues will also serve as a litmus test: Will the Biden administration indicate the trade deal Britain craves with the US is on the runway for takeoff?

What role is Britain being asked to play in the President’s “coalition of democracies” that he foresees confronting China and Russia? What reassurances will he provide to G7 leaders that the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan won’t to create a festering problem closer to their doorsteps than to his?

And how can he guarantee the battle against climate change will remain on America’s agenda over the long term?

The biggest question hanging over this trip is one of credibility.

Can President Biden persuade international leaders, who witnessed January’s insurrection on Capitol Hill, that he’s more than a passing fancy and that American democracy is not hanging by a thread?

Will his worldview prove to have electoral sustainability over Trumpism as early as next year in mid-term Congressional elections?

He says America is back, and he can point to a rebounding economy and a relatively successful vaccination programme to support that claim.

But he wants world leaders to place a long-term bet on him this week, and that’s a gamble they know might not pay off.