Jon Sopel-North America editor
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As I am writing this, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in the air on his way to the US.
A couple of dozen journalists will be on the plane with him. An advance party is already in Washington DC.
Every one of those will be allowed in because the American authorities have granted them a National Interest Exemption. Without it, you cannot enter the US from the UK or the European Union. Period.
But why? Or to put it simply, what possible justification is there for President Joe Biden to keep this travel ban in place?
It’s a blunt instrument that prevents family members from visiting sick relatives, grandparents meeting grandchildren, business-people (unless they have got bloody good connections) from coming into the country to invest. And on and on it goes.
There are any number of big-ticket items for the two leaders to discuss when they get together on Tuesday at the White House – French anger over the submarine deal, the upcoming climate change conference in Glasgow, Afghanistan – and on and on.
But there is also this one item that should be relatively easy to sort out, which I suspect is of more immediate concern to tens of thousands of Brits and millions of Europeans.
The ban – understandably – was introduced by Donald Trump last March via a Presidential Proclamation, as the pandemic was starting to spread. There was much speculation that when President Biden visited Cornwall in June for the G7 international summit he would lift the ban.
Certainly, the US tourism industry was hoping so.
And I get more unsolicited emails on this subject than any other from British people frustrated beyond belief that they can’t get to see elderly family members who are too sick to travel from the US.
One man who got in touch bemoaned the fact that he couldn’t get to see a relative dying of cancer, but he had seen on the Daily Mail website a picture of a Chelsea footballer during the summer frolicking on the beach in Florida. Elite sports teams seem to get waivers very easily. Normal mortals, not so much.
Even British tennis player Emma Raducanu’s parents couldn’t come and watch their daughter play in the final of one of the highest-profile sporting events in the US.
Visitors to the US
- In 2019, the US was fourth most visited country by UK residents, according to Statista
- Four of top 10 holiday destinations booked for 2022 by Brits are in US, according to Skyscanner
- Drop in international visitor numbers in 2020 cost US economy 5.5m jobs and $139bn, according to World Trade and Travel Council
I did an interview with President Biden’s National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, before the gathering in Carbis Bay and he had two buckets of ice cold water to pour over the idea that there was to be an imminent lifting of the ban.
He did his best to sound sympathetic – and said (entirely reasonably) that the US would be guided by the science, and working parties would be established to examine the issue.
OK, I hear you say – that seems reasonable.
But if entry into the US is being governed by epidemiological concerns about the risk from Covid, why are there no restrictions for people coming from countries which have a much higher incidence of the disease, like some nations in the Caribbean, or from those countries which have a far lower percentage of the population vaccinated, like Argentina?
And if it is about concern over the spread of the Delta variant can someone explain to me the science that allows American citizens to freely come and go to the UK and Europe without any quarantine requirements when they return?
Also the Delta variant is rampant throughout the US, made worse by certain sections of the population refusing to get vaccinated.
Here’s the political problem, and I think it is twofold.
The first is this: Biden’s approval ratings have been slipping over the summer. Yes, in Europe, the focus has been on the woeful misjudgements by the president over the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. But here, much more focus is on the latest coronavirus wave, which this administration had promised it would deal with so much more effectively than his predecessor.
But instead, new cases, deaths and hospitalisations have been rising steeply. So, in that context, what is the political impetus for Joe Biden to lift the travel ban if it brings charges from your opponents that you’ve gone soft on tackling the disease?
But I am not sure that really gets to the nub of it. It is more likely bureaucratic stasis.
Politicians down the ages are the reverse of golfers – they have always preferred the long grass than closely trimmed fairways. Put the Covid ball into the deep stuff and let it stay there.
The moment you hear working parties, inter-departmental cooperation you should feel anxious. On the US side, this travel ban is now a matter for the State Department, Health, Homeland Security, the Transportation Department, the Centers for Disease Control and National Security Council. I have probably left some bodies out of that.
In other words no one person or department owns the decision; no one owns the policy. It is going to take someone to bang heads together and deal with this. And exasperated British officials that I have spoken to say they see no sign of that happening.
I am told Johnson is intending to raise this with Biden at their meeting on Tuesday. Maybe his persuasive powers will lead to the US president rescinding the proclamation.
But more likely, I’m hearing, is – at best – a slight tinkering with the terms of the agreement. Remember there is a far higher percentage of Britons double-vaccinated than Americans. Could that be made a criterion of entry?
And if not now then when? Is the administration really saying that it won’t lift the ban until Covid is eliminated from the planet – although if you route yourself through Buenos Aires or Barbados for a couple of weeks you can enter the US? Isn’t that just nuts?
By all means be driven by the science, but the science can’t be applied to Britain and Europe alone.