When travel restrictions were lifted in early July, France seemed like the safest bet for a first post-lockdown trip. For nervous Britons it felt close, could be reached by car and, for many, there’s a psychological attachment after so many decades of holidays in the country.
However, in yet another pendulum swing of the pandemic, after a spike in infections France seems set to be struck off the travel “safe list” this week, which could create chaos for thousands of British holidaymakers, who may soon have to quarantine on their return to Britain.
On Monday, Britons were reminded by Downing Street that “there is no risk-free way of travelling overseas,” with Boris Johnson saying that he would “not hesitate” to bring in quarantine for other countries.
Among those who have booked holidays to France there is a sense of defiance even as the quarantine storm clouds gather. Emma Featherstone, who is still planning on travelling to Marseille with her boyfriend this weekend, said: “It wouldn't be ideal, but we're both ready to quarantine on return, if France is removed from the travel green list.”
She adds: “We are lucky that both of us can do our jobs from home (as we have been doing since March), with plenty of food and grocery delivery options, if needed.”
Emma had previously looked at heading to Greece, where demand has soared, or Croatia, but settled on France due to cost and relative ease of getting home. “Should our return flights be cancelled while we are in France, the Eurostar or a ferry could offer an alternative route home. I knew that any overseas travel would come with a risk.”
Similarly, another traveller who did not want to be named but will shortly be heading to a villa near Limoges in central France with his wife and young daughter born at the beginning of lockdown, will not be deterred. He says: “I have been waiting for my paternity leave to start before we could go on our first holiday together, and France has always been the aim.”
On potentially having to quarantine on return he says: “It won't be ideal, but it's a risk we're willing to take after six months in a two-bed flat.” Perhaps summing up the thoughts of the entire nation, he adds: “I need this holiday.”
This attitude is echoed by many already on holiday in France. Sue Ockley, who is staying on the Normandy coast, says: “Quarantining would be an inconvenience, but no more than that”. However, she does question the effectiveness of the measure: “It seems ridiculous when there are people flying in from all over the place, who have not even been vetted on arrival.”
It’s a reminder of how starkly life has changed during the pandemic. Before March, it seemed unthinkable that anyone would consent to two weeks locked indoors in return for the right to take a holiday. Now, for many, it is a price worth paying.
While a significant number are pressing ahead with their holidays, the real concern is among people who are unable to work from home and families who could potentially need to complete a 14-day isolation period before the new school year starts in September.
A few families saw the writing on the wall when Spain was struck off the travel corridor list and planned accordingly. Dom Tulett, who is currently holidaying along the Côte Vermeille with his family, says: “We planned our trip timings to have at least two weeks before the new school year starts, in case we needed to quarantine on return. We are fully prepared to lockdown if the rules shift.”
He notes that the feeling on the ground in France is not indicative of a country entering a second wave. “Rules seem clearer here than in the UK, with notices and hand sanitiser everywhere. People generally seem more relaxed; perhaps the clarity helps," he said.
However, the vast majority of families have been blindsided by the rumblings that France will axed from the shrinking travel corridor list. Sasha Slater is picking up her son from south west France this weekend before meeting up with her family at their house near Toulouse. They were due to stay there until August 30, but have now had to re-think.
“Flights on August 19 are insanely expensive and going up," she said. "Yesterday afternoon a flight on BA from Toulouse to London was about 50 euros, now a flight is more than 400 euros. Obviously a huge amount of people have identified that as D-day.”
“We've bought a ticket for my husband and son to come back on August 20 to be on the safe side, which means my husband will not even have a full week of summer holiday.
“I think a huge amount of other people are going to be desperately trying to get home on August 19 and it will be living hell.”
The race is on for families needing to return in time for school, but in the longer-term, the question is how long can the ailing travel industry cope with these ever-changing restrictions?