Covid issues with travel to Belgium for Podge’s Belgian Beer Tours are of course dependant on the general international travel rules for everyone, but group travel brings further considerations. All Travellers on Podge's Belgian Beer Tours will now need to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 at least two weeks before the departure date of their Tour. This is partly so Travellers on the coach and in close proximity to others can know that their fellow travellers have been vaccinated, but also because for the foreseeable future international travel without being vaccinated, at least in a group situation, will be extremely difficult.
The current situation is that our Tours cannot run because of the testing/quarantine regimes in place in the UK and in Belgium.
The UK is currently on Belgium’s red list (high risk) for travel. There are different requirements for travellers who are fully vaccinated and for those who are not. The following assumes that all our Travellers are fully vaccinated.
So, in order to enter Belgium currently fully vaccinated travellers from outside Europe from a Red Zone must take a Covid test on either day 1 or 2 of arrival in Belgium and quarantine until they receive a negative result. Quarantine means staying indoors in a single place, which must be specified in advance on the Passenger Locator Form which we would all have to complete upon entry. This can be a hotel. During this period, contact with other people must be completely avoided and going outside is not permitted for any reason. This self-isolation is something which might work for a Belgian resident returning from their holiday, but not for a coach of inbound tourists. I doubt a hotel would allow us to do this it even if we wanted to. It would mean them bringing us breakfast in our rooms. Also, the booking of individual PCR laboratory tests and waiting for the results is something I think we would not really want to contemplate. This Belgian day 1 or day 2 test must be a PCR test (not one you can bring from home and stick in your pocket) with certain prescribed attributes.
I understand that random checks may be carried out at the borders or by Police randomly in Belgium and failure to abide by test rules risks a fine of EUR 250. The Police can follow anyone up from information given on the Passenger Locator Forms which we all have to submit electronically to the authorities on entry to Belgium, including declaring our place of quarantine. If any of the group tested positive, they would have to stay in quarantine for 10 days, presumably in the hotel, with periodic further testing. These requirements alone mean that I cannot envisage taking a group to Belgium until we are no longer a Red Zone country on their travel list.
Our carrier is Le Shuttle, with whom we take our 49-seater coach through the Channel Tunnel to France, then onward to Belgium. Their website sets out clearly their requirements which are aligned with the UK and French Covid travel regulations. They set out what documentation needs to be presented to them to comply with those regulations for travel between UK and France which are broadly as follows:
1. API Advance Passenger Information
2. Proof Of Vaccination status
1. Passenger Locator Form – This form must be completed by each traveller and presented in digital or paper format to the border authorities. It must specify the unique reference number of the booked pre-travel testing package at (3) below.
2. Proof of a negative COVID test. All passengers travelling on Le Shuttle passenger service require a negative result from a non-NHS PCR or a non-NHS Antigen (lateral flow). You must take the test in the 3 days before your booked departure from the continent. At UK border controls you will need to present an email or text message certificate in English, French or Spanish issued by the testing facility. Failure to do so will result in a £500 fine. Le Shuttle give links on their website how to find a private test provider in France and state that there is no COVID-19 testing facility at the Eurotunnel Facility in Calais and that “It's your responsibility to ensure the test meets the minimum standards for sensitivity, specificity and viral load details”.
3. A "Day 2" COVID Test Pack for use after your return to the UK. This is because UK regulations state that all fully vaccinated passengers must take a COVID-19 test on or before the second day after their return to the UK. A "test pack" must be booked and paid for in advance for each passenger before you begin your journey back to the UK. The unique reference number of the test pack must be specified on the Passenger Locator Form.
Le Shuttle’s electronic online systems have been set up for people travelling in cars to upload documentation such as the API (Advance Passenger Information), Passenger Locator Forms, Covid test results, Proof of Vaccination Status and Proof of “Day 2” Covid Test Pack to their booking reference on the website to make this whole thing easier. Unfortunately, it appears to be much more challenging where you are dealing with group travel and a whole bunch of people travelling on one vehicle booked by a coach company. Our coach provider arranges and pays for the channel tunnel train booking. We would need to liaise with them to see if it was possible to upload all of our above individual pieces of (health sensitive) information via the coach company booking with Le Shuttle. If uploading electronically is not possible, all documentation would need to be manually checked for each passenger at Folkestone and Calais presumably along with all other group travel coach carriers with the same issues.
Some of the following may seem obvious, but other items may not be so. Travellers need to consider the following before travelling abroad in any event and in particular on a Podge’s Belgian Beer Tour:
You must have travel insurance to join a Podge’s Belgian Beer Tour, taken out before you book a Tour in case you need to cancel at short notice. Our cancellation policy is set out on our Terms & Conditions page.
The Coronavirus pandemic has caused insurers to amend their policy cover to now exclusion many Coronavirus scenarios, so you need to know what your policy covers and what it does not. If you are unsure please call your insurer. In very general terms it is likely that your policy would cover you for medical expenses, medical repatriation costs and certain other expenses incurred only if you actually contract Coronavirus abroad, have a positive test and a medical diagnosis. You may also be covered for the extra costs of extending your stay as a result of contracting Coronavirus whilst away, but these could have an upper limit. You need to know what yours is.
Travellers need to be aware that UK and foreign government can impose onerous and draconian restrictions on travel at any time and without notice which could affect your holiday. In some countries borders may close or you may be required to self-isolate for a set period, even if you do not have symptoms.
From what I can ascertain, pretty much everything else connected with Coronavirus and holidays is likely to be excluded on your travel policy. What sort of things might these be? Well, possible scenarios not covered by your travel insurance may be:
• If UK government restrictions on travel are removed but are later reinstated and prevent you from travelling close to the date of departure.
• If the area where you live in the UK or where you are departing from is locked down.
• If the UK government introduces compulsory quarantine for travellers coming back from your holiday location and you no longer want to travel.
• If you arrive at your destination to find all UK nationals are required to quarantine on arrival and you wish to cut your trip short.
• If the area you are staying in on holiday is locked down by the local government
• If there is a spike in local cases when you are on holiday and you wish to cut short your holiday.
• If you are required to quarantine in your hotel room by a local government or a public health official, even if you have no symptoms. For example if another guest in your hotel tests positive for Coronavirus or if the Belgian Track & Trace authorities give an instruction for travellers to quarantine in their hotel room. If you are required to go into quarantine whilst you are abroad, you may be covered provided there is no Coronavirus exclusion in your policy. Your insurer may consider additional travel expenses at the end of the quarantined period to allow you to return home.
I would also add on a personal note that I am looking forward to when I can take travellers to Belgium again, and always have in mind what Podge used to say, "We'll get there..."
Podge's favourite, Westmalle Triple and its little sister.