Skip to content

Saving the Red-eye to Ibiza: How vaccine corridors can open up travel again

Article by Professor Amelia Hadfield and Christian Turner

February 8, 2021

Saving the Red-eye to Ibiza: How vaccine corridors can open up travel again

On January 31st 2021, Britain marked one full year of its first-known case of COVID-19. Since then, both the economy and key industries, including aviation have been decimated.


From February 2020, a number of countries began the slow march to restrict or close their borders, although Europe would take only limited action during the first wave between March-May. The EU would eventually impose a cross-member state approach, allowing in travellers from just eight countries without the need for quarantine. Britain then brought in border measures in June by way of its ‘travel corridor’ list: – a ‘green list’ and ‘red list’ of countries where the former allowed for leisure travel and the latter resulted in a mandatory quarantine, apart from key workers.


Border control: from slow burn to radical measures

From mid-January 2021, these measures have been radically stepped up by the British Government. At this point, the British Government requires a negative test 72 hours prior to arriving for all travellers arriving from all countries.[1] Travellers – whether UK citizens or not – arriving from ‘red list’ countries (primarily southern Africa, South America and Portugal) will be routed to mandatory hotel quarantine from February 15th.[2]


The recent tightening of measures by the British Government, echoed by governments across Europe as well as Canada and the USA, is not necessarily a reflection of lessons learned, but rather a hurried response to the emergence of a host of new variants of the COVID-19 virus now threatening to increase the burden on already overstretched healthcare systems. It is worth highlighting that the travel restrictions recently adopted by many Western nations including Britain have been in use for nearly a year in parts of Asia and Oceania that have achieved ‘COVID zero’ – the near-elimination of the prevalence of the virus through initially strict restrictions and long-term border closures. Australia and New Zealand are exemplars in this respect. Yet, for European nations including Britain, wholesale travel restrictions such as these are still a relatively new tool in the anti-COVID arsenal.


Aviation woes

For the global aviation industry, a bruising year of 2020 now threatens to turn cataclysmic. In the UK, projections by Heathrow Airport predicted a scenario in which fully half of the estimated 135,000 employees that rely on the output of this unique economic municipality would lose their jobs in 2021.[3] Gatwick Airport announced plans to reduce its workforce by around a third in the summer of 2020, with over 80 per cent of staff on furlough in July 2020.[4] Yet, these predictions and announcement were made in September 2020, prior to the introduction of mandatory testing on arrival and hotel quarantines.


These and other acute pressures on the sector are only increasing and if 2020 can be considered disastrous, 2021 threatens to be cataclysmic the longer these restrictions are maintained. Whilst the UK Government has extended measures to assist businesses of all kind including the furlough scheme and various forms of financial support (mainly in the form of loans and grants), it is clear that the aviation sector will require its own unique measures if it is to survive. There have been suggestions of suspending business rates on airports and Passenger Air Duty as a means of alleviating some pressure and creating the potential for growth.[5]


Vaccine corridors

Of course, the stringent travel measures recently introduced in January 2021 are ironically part of the evolving landscape of recovery in which the hope of slow but steady nation-wide vaccine rollout has begun. On January 29th, the fifth vaccine ordered by the UK – manufactured by Johnson and Johnson – revealed positive efficacy results on its one-jab application, further increasing hope that the UK will achieve its objective of vaccinating the entire adult population by September 2021.[6] The UK has already achieved some success with its existing vaccine rollout, heavily dependent on Pfizer and AstraZeneca. The Government’s goal is to achieve (or at least come very close) to vaccinating the four most vulnerable categories by February 15th 2021, an estimated 15 million individuals who will have a high degree of immunity to the virus from the first of two jabs.[7]


In the EU, the region-wide rollout has descended from turf wars between the European Commission and the 27 Member States to an outright cage fight, with AstraZeneca initially announcing it would deliver around 31 million dosages when compared to the pre-contracted 80 million doses promised  in the first quarter of 2021. The AstraZeneca announcement came hard on the heels of Pfizer’s own announcement of a temporary reduction in output of its long-term production capacity and delays from Moderna. The EU – already lagging behind the UK, the USA and Canada in approving these three vaccines – was under severe pressure. It attempted to take the initiative with an export register that would force companies to inform the European Commission of the amount of vaccine dosages leaving the bloc.


This threatened to backfire spectacularly when at the end of January Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen hastily announced the EU would resort to Article 16 of the EU-UK trade deal and impose a de facto vaccine border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Within hours, Von Der Leyen was forced into a humiliating U-turn as criticism poured in from across the EU, as well as the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, as well as the British Government. Slowly, as tempers subsided, positives began to emerge, with AstraZeneca confirming it will deliver around nine million dosages more than it its initial forecast, and Pfizer confirming an additional 75 million dosages in the second quarter.


Across the Atlantic, the new Biden administration has promised to deliver at least 100 million jabs in 100 days in the USA, whilst Israel looks set to be the first country in the world to fully vaccinate its adult population. As vaccine immunity grows slowly in each country, in particular amongst those most susceptible to the virus, comes the hope that travel restrictions could lessen. Unfortunately, the dangers of new and potential virus variants mean that a complete revocation is unlikely, especially as most of Africa and parts of Asia look unlikely to be able to carry out any meaningful vaccinations this year.


Yet, for states that have carried out sufficient vaccination comes the prospect of vaccine corridors. In essence, this would build on the UK Government’s travel corridors concept launched in June and requires both of the ‘corridor nations’ to be sufficiently protected from COVID-19 to the extent that travellers would not be a health risk as they currently may be. This would likely involve a common approach to managing borders, namely in the shape of uniform and severe restrictions on third countries that have not been vaccinated, or are struggling with high cases, or where a new variant has provably emerged. This unanimity in external border measures has been found wanting in this last year both between and within states, but the vaccination programme presents a new hope.


In practice, these travel corridors would likely involve a small number of countries forming a collective bubble to allow some ‘normality’ of travel to return this summer. It would likely be comprised of mostly Western nations, such as the EU member states, the UK, USA, Canada and parts of the Middle East, with the eventual possibility of opening up to more countries as the vaccine rollout accelerates.


Implemented intelligently, things may begin to change, albeit slowly. For the aviation industry, any change is surely welcome, allowing airports to revive and plan to start flying again. For some ports and carriers, it may all come too late. For others, vaccine corridors may well alleviate the acute economic crisis or the sector and catalyse the path to a post-COVID world. However, the sheer organisation involved requires far more, and far better cooperation and partnership between governments, something that vaccine nationalism has unfortunately thrown into reverse, even if the production of COVID vaccines is testament to the cooperative qualities of transnational research. Operable and effective vaccine corridors will most importantly involve sacrifice, requires common-sense and demand robust protocols that are stringent and nimble in application. At a time when so little hope has prevailed, these options promise a return to mobility – a freedom that we all have taken for granted until very recently.


Professor Amelia Hadfield is the Head of the Department of Politics at the University of Surrey, and Co-Director of the Jean Monnet Centre for Britain and Europe (CBE), as well as Dean International.


Christian Turner is a graduate of Canterbury Christ Church University and the University of Kent, and a Junior Fellow of the CBE working on EU-UK foreign and security issues.


Image by U.S. Secretary of Defense under (CC).


[1] Department for Transport and Robert Courts MP, International travel update, 11 January 2021,, January 2021,

[2] Erenie Mullens-Burgess and Sarah Nickson, Hotel quarantine, Institute for Government, February 2021,

[3] Charting Surrey’s Post-COVID Rescue, Recovery and Growth, University of Surrey, November 2020, p.148,

[4] Ibid p.140

[5] Ibid, p.203

[6] The other vaccines as ordered by the United Kingdom that have reported phase 3 trial results are Pfizer/BioNTech, AstraZeneca/University of Oxford, Moderna and Novavax.

[7] UK COVID-19 vaccines delivery plan, Department of Health & Social Care, January 2021,; These four groups are residents and workers in care homes; those over the age of 80 and frontline workers; those over the age of 75; and those over the age of 70 and clinically extremely vulnerable individuals.

    Related Articles

     Join our mailing list 

    Keep informed about events, articles & latest publications from Foreign Policy Centre