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Great Britain Needs a Vacation

In Britain, almost all workers have a statutory right to twenty-eight days of paid vacation time annually, the equivalent of 5.6 weeks off a year. While that’s a less generous allowance than exists in some other countries—Austrian workers have upward of thirty days off a year, for example—it’s considerably more than their American equivalents, for whom there exists no federal right to paid vacation at all, and many of whom get just ten days off a year. With well over a month of free time to play with—and, in recent years, the plentiful availability of budget flights, especially to continental Europe—Britons are frequent international travellers. At the most recent count, more than four out of every five residents in England and Wales held a valid passport, and, in 2019, two-thirds of people in Britain took at least one foreign holiday, with eighteen million visitors to Spain alone—one Iberian sojourn for every four Britons. In Britain, foreign holidays are a national preoccupation: where you went, where you’re going, how many times you’ve been, and when you’re going back. It would not be an overstatement to say that a pillar of the British way of life is the ability to get the hell out of Britain and take advantage of the way of life of other places, ones where the sun shines reliably every day, where you can enjoy a dip in the sea without donning a wetsuit, and where—why, yes, I’d love some tapas and sangria, muchas gracias.

All of which is why, during the long months of lockdown from which Britain is only now gradually emerging, the question of when Britons would be able to travel, and to where, has been a pressing national concern, up there with keeping track of transmission rates and the vaccine rollout. In the summer of 2020, “travel corridors” with foreign destinations were opened up, permitting quarantine-free and test-free travel between the United Kingdom and some of its most popular destinations, including Spain, France, and Italy. But the corridors were subject to weekly review, with sudden changes meaning that tourists spending some of their allotted vacation time in Málaga might suddenly find themselves required to use unbudgeted days in self-isolation at home when they returned. This year, it was hoped, would be different. But different how?

In January, when the weather was terrible, a full national lockdown was imposed in Britain, which included a ban on nonessential international travel. Fair enough: what is known in Britain as the Kent variant, and is known elsewhere as the British variant, was raging. Its spread accelerated in the lead-up to Christmas, a holiday during which, under normal circumstances, Britons tend to use some of their vacation days to visit family domestically—or, if they are lucky, to flee to the slopes of Chamonix or Val d’Isère. In February, when the weather was terrible—and when, in a typical year, British families might be hopping to the Maldives or the Canary Islands for the weeklong winter break from school—Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, warned the public against even indulging in that other traditional midwinter recreation, planning and booking a summer holiday. “We are in danger of making ‘holiday’ a dirty word,” one Tory M.P. grumbled to the Daily Mail. (Last summer, Shapps had been obliged to slam shut the travel corridor with Spain within hours of arriving there with his family for a holiday, then to hasten back to the U.K. and immediately enter quarantine. “I’m the last person you should take travel advice on this from,” he acknowledged in a radio interview at the beginning of this year.) Meanwhile, a mandatory ten-day quarantine in a government-approved hotel, at a cost of almost two and a half thousand dollars, was…

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