What is considered essential travel vs. non-essential travel during lockdown restrictions?

Jan 5, 2021

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information.

The coronavirus pandemic and its ensuing government-imposed travel warnings have completely upended the global travel industry. And the restrictions have been constantly changing.

In March, the U.K. government’s then Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) advised U.K. nationals against all non-essential international travel. That advice was then revised to allow travel to dozens of destinations, including much of mainland Europe.

Then, as of England’s second national lockdown on 5 November, the government once again changed its stance on travel — both domestically and internationally — until that lockdown ended on 2 December.

However, on Monday, 4 January, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a third national lockdown. The restrictions will see the country return to its draconian lockdown state amid mass spread of the COVID-19 virus.

As of 6 January, the government says that “you must not leave your home unless you have a reasonable excuse,” such as for work or education purposes. Additionally, the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) still advises against travel to certain destinations even if you meet that criteria for essential travel.

And as for holidays, they’re out of the question. “You cannot leave your home or the place where you are living for holidays or overnight stays unless you have a reasonable excuse for doing so,” the government says. “This means that holidays in the UK and abroad are not allowed.”

So, with this third lockdown, we’re looking at two sets of restrictions: One that says you cannot travel at all, and one that advises for or against travel if you need to go there for essential reasons.

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But what does this actually mean? If you want to travel right now, could your travel be deemed essential?

Let’s have a look at the definition of each type of travel.

"Houston, USA - February 6, 2008: This picture was taken in 2008 before the merger of United and Continental Airlines. The airline has kept the Continental livery but uses the United name."
(Photo by Maxian/Getty Images)

What is essential travel?

For this second lockdown, the government says you cannot travel — either domestically or internationally — if it does not fall into one of a few categories. More specifically, the government says that travel for work, education or other legally permitted reasons can go on.

Here are examples of when travel is permitted under the third lockdown:

  • Travelling to work where this cannot be done from home;
  • Travelling to access education and for caring responsibilities;
  • To visit those in your support bubble – or your childcare bubble for childcare;
  • Hospital, GP and other medical appointments or visits where you have had an accident or are concerned about your health;
  • To buy goods or services that you need;
  • To spend time or exercise outdoors – this should be done locally wherever possible, but you can travel to do so if necessary (for example, to access an open space); and
  • Attending the care and exercise of a pet, or veterinary services.

As far as international travel, you must have a legally permitted reason to leave home. If you do need to travel for one of the above reasons, then the FCDO advice applies to you. The office still advises against all non-essential travel to a number of destinations.

Unfortunately, the FCDO does not have a simple definition of what is essential or non-essential travel. Ultimately, this a decision for the individual themselves based on the risk and their personal responsibility. If you choose to board a flight for one of the above reasons, it is currently unlikely that the British government will stop you from doing so.

Like the lockdown and social distancing requirements, it is up to each individual to do the right thing to help protect the NHS and stop the continued spread of the coronavirus so that we can return to normal life and travel once this is all over.

The FCDO recognises some people may have essential family and/or business travel. If you have a family emergency and need to urgently care for a loved one when no one else can, this could be considered essential travel. A pilot flying cargo planes full of medical supplies back and forth between China and the U.K., for example, would be essential travel as domestic and international freight transport is an essential service. The same goes for a lorry driver crossing from mainland Europe into the U.K.

Most business travel has ceased, as many businesses have suffered significant downturns and because it’s not necessarily safe to travel right now. However, under lockdown restrictions, work travel is still permitted where it cannot be done from home.

You should not travel at all if you are feeling unwell, regardless of whether you believe the reason for travelling is essential or not. Note that if you do travel abroad, there is no guarantee you will be able to return to the U.K., due to the constantly changing travel restrictions and interruptions. This may be particularly difficult if you travel to a remote island versus mainland Europe, for example, where you could potentially just drive back to the United Kingdom if necessary.

Related: What to do if you’re stranded abroad trying to get home to the UK

LONDON, May 1, 2020.A passenger wearing a face mask is seen at Heathrow Airport in London, Britain, on May 1, 2020. British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Friday that the country has met the goal of 100,000 tests per day as another 739 people with COVID-19 have died, bringing the total coronavirus-related death toll to 27,510 in Britain. As of Friday morning, 177,454 people have tested positive for the disease, said Hancock. (Photo by Tim Ireland/Xinhua via Getty) (Xinhua/ via Getty Images)
(Photo by Tim Ireland/Xinhua via Getty)

What is non-essential travel?

The government, including the FCDO, has given some guidance that travelling to a second home abroad or in the U.K. is not allowed. So, for example, you should not visit your holiday home in Spain regardless of how much you’re craving a holiday.

Be aware that you may need to quarantine for 10 days on your return to the U.K. if you return from a non-travel corridor country.

Related: All 75 countries, territories and regions that are on the UK’s travel corridor list

There are extensive, complex and constantly changing border restrictions for U.K. nationals attempting to travel abroad anyway. In fact, the Netherlands and Germany have banned U.K. arrivals who are travelling for non-essential reasons.

Most travel insurance policies will exclude claims where travel has been undertaken in disobedience of a government travel warning, such as this from the FCDO.

Related: Does my travel insurance cover COVID-19?

Bottom line

Most of us have had some — or all — of our travel plans cancelled since the start of the pandemic. As England enters its third lockdown, you cannot travel unless it falls into one of the criteria deemed necessary. If your travel does fall into one of those categories and you need to go abroad, the FCDO still advises against all but essential travel to some destinations.

Be aware there are all sorts of restrictions that are constantly changing. Even if you are able to travel somewhere right now, you can expect the experience to be different to what you are used to.

Additional reporting by Emily McNutt.

Featured image by martin-dm/Getty Images

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