Keep calm and check your passport dates
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.
Demand for foreign holidays bounced back to pre-pandemic levels. That is according to a survey by the travel association, Abta. The news was released to coincide with the first anniversary of the lifting of the last of the tangle of extremely complex and fast-changing Covid travel restrictions in place during the coronavirus pandemic. You will recall that they ranged from mandatory PCR Covid tests and complicated form-filling for everyone coming back to the UK, to the notorious “traffic light” rules that could trigger hotel quarantine at a cost of £2,000.
At 4am on 18 March 2022, the remaining Covid travel restrictions were scrapped. The rules that we were all expected faithfully to follow until that moment were officially deemed pointless. The then transport secretary, Grant Shapps, had spent much of the previous two years imposing a boggling array of ill-thought-out travel restrictions that included the unprecedented suppression of the freedom to travel for 19 weeks in 2022 and the ludicrous “amber-plus” categorisation of France in the summer of 2021, which ruined countless holidays for no purpose at all. (Covid restrictions have since been reimposed for people arriving from mainland China but are due to be lifted early in April.)
The removal of rules on testing and vaccination led to a surge of bookings – whereupon parts of the travel industry unravelled under the strain, with airports, airlines and indeed the Passport Office unable to cope with the demand. Even so, says Abta, 62 per cent of British people have been on a foreign holiday since the lifting of the UK’s Covid travel restrictions. A higher proportion are planning to go on holiday abroad in the next 12 months, and Abta says holidays are the “non-essential” purchase people want to prioritise this year.
But the results came a day after the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union announced a five-week strike by HM Passport Office workers – predicting the walkout will have a “significant impact” on the delivery of passports as the summer approaches. More than 1,000 members of the PCS are set to walk out at all seven offices in England, Wales and Scotland from 3 April to 5 May – that’s five working weeks. The move is an escalation of action in a dispute over jobs, pay and conditions.
The Home Office says the current 10-week deadline for delivery of passports will stay the same – and emphasises it has “comprehensive contingency plans in place”. I imagine that could involve managers being moved temporarily to new roles in passport offices, just as they were during the UK Border Force strikes that began before Christmas. But the PCS has timed the action for maximum effect; based on last year’s figures, I calculate around 1 million applications could be made during the five weeks of industrial action.
Even if the walk-out is called off, the effects are already being felt. Michael Hodge runs, as a public service, the private Twitter feed @UKpassportcheck. It gives details of what appointments are available for interviews at passport offices for people who need a new travel document in a hurry. He tells me: “News of the strike caused a surge in bookings. Very few appointments remain. Like last year, people will be scrambling for appointments being added each day.”
The biggest problem is “panic renewals” caused because of uncertainty about the rules on passport validity. Prospective travellers are obsessing about dates. Many people have contacted me since the news broke on Friday morning to ask if they need to apply for a new passport. Overwhelmingly, they cite misinformation about “passports expiring automatically after 10 years” and a supposed “minimum six months” rule for validity. In fact, only a very few nations on the tourism mainstream require that much remaining before expiry, and many impose no minimum at all.
The Independent has produced comprehensive guides to post-Brexit passport rules for travel to the European Union and wider Schengen Area, as well as the differing rules on passport expiry dates worldwide. Read them, check if your passport complies for your travel plans in the near future, and apply only if it is absolutely necessary. Applying through an “abundance of caution” will just gum everything up.