US and UK travel restrictions anger British ex-pats

Three weeks before Aysha Mathew is due to deliver her second child, you’d think she’d…

Three weeks before Aysha Mathew is due to deliver her second child, you’d think she’d be full of joy and anticipation.

Instead, the British ex-pat is terrified she’ll struggle to cope without the support of her mother and sister who are banned from flying in from England to help with Mathew’s recovery and care for her 20-month-old son, Adam.

“It’s totally unfair that the government won’t let them in,” said the expectant mom from Glen Rock, NJ. “The bureaucracy is making me feel like a second-class citizen.”

The US currently prohibits entry to all non-citizens from the UK, citing the risk of COVID-19. But critics claim the travel restriction is arbitrary as borders are open to travelers from countries with more virus cases and lower vaccination rates, such as Mexico, the Dominican Republic and other parts of the Caribbean.

They are also frustrated by regulations in the UK that classify the US as a so-called “amber” nation. It means arrivals from this side of the Atlantic must quarantine for up to 10 days and spend thousands of dollars on a series of COVID tests. The exceptions are British citizens with a permanent residence in the UK, who received both COVID jabs over there.

Aysha Mathew with her husband, Vincent, and son, Adam.
Vincent Mathew and his wife, Aysha, with their son, Adam. The family is looking forward to the arrival of Adam’s sibling but remain concerned close British relatives can’t visit to help out.
Courtesy of Aysha Mathe

These policies contrast with the rest of Europe, which has been welcoming Americans for months. Travelers to places like Italy and Spain have no problem getting back into the US. But there are complications for visa-holding Brits who don’t have dual citizenship or a green card. Even though they live, work and pay taxes in America, they risk losing their livelihoods because they are banned from returning to their adopted nation.

The rule has prevented Westchester dad Stephen — a software engineer who withheld his last name for professional reasons — from reuniting with his extended family in Scotland after a two-year separation.

“My youngest daughter just turned 4 and her grandparents could only watch her opening her presents on video,” said the 29-year-old, who is here on a L-1B visa. “It’s heartbreaking to be kept apart for so long.”

He maintained the travel ban was fully understandable during lockdown, when COVID cases and hospitalizations soared. But, since the successful rollout of vaccines in Britain and the US has reduced the numbers, a review is long overdue.

Aysha Mathew's sister, Nipa Islam with their mom, Kushnahar Islam.
Nipa (left) and Kushnahar Islam, the sister and mother of Aysha Mathew, applied to the US government for a National Interest Exemption (NIE) to enter the country on grounds of helping Mathew post-partum. Their plea was rejected within 24 hours.
courtesy of Aysha Mathew

“It’s frustrating because we are a forgotten category of people being denied the right to see our close relatives,” Stephen added. “It’s like our time together is being stolen.”

He is now part of an influential social media campaign called LoveIsNotTourism whose vast network of members is calling for an exemption to travel bans for qualifying families.

Meanwhile, a petition has been launched to pressure the British government into allowing ex-pats vaccinated outside of the UK to skip the stringent quarantine requirements when they visit their homeland.

There have also been calls by airlines such as British Airways and Virgin for the development of a US/UK “travel corridor” before the end of summer. The plan is reportedly being considered by a joint taskforce, but negotiations appear to have stalled, partly due to the Delta variant.

In the US, 67.8 percent of adults have received at least one vaccine dose, while about half of adults have been fully vaccinated. In the UK, almost 46 million people have received at least one shot — about 87 percent of the country’s adult population. Studies show that vaccine programs in both nations are successfully reducing transmission and the severity of infection, plus fighting variants, and case counts continue to decline.

A relaxation of the rules would certainly appeal to Westchester mom Rebecca Bell, 46, who has booked a trip to see her British family next month after an estrangement lasting two-and-a-half years.

Abigail, Rebecca, Alistair and Jonathan Bell
From left: Abigail, Rebecca, Alistair and Jonathan Bell who are preparing to quarantine as part of their visit to the UK reuniting with loved ones.
Courtesy of Rebecca Bell

As things stand, she will spend a significant portion of the stay in isolation at an Airbnb with husband, Alistair, 50, and their kids, Jonathan, 17, and 14-year-old Abigail. Their combined COVID tests will cost upward of $1,000.

“I’m at the point where I’m pretty much willing to do — or pay — anything,” said Bell, a nature photographer. “It’s been incredibly hard being away from my loved ones for so long, especially as some of them have health issues.

“There have been times when I’ve wondered whether I’d ever get to see them again.”

Emma Cotgrave, Barry Cruickshanks and Rebecca Bell during a family reunion in December 2018.
Rebecca Bell (right) sits beside her dad, Barry Cruickshanks, and sister, Emma Cotgrave, during her last visit to the UK in December 2018 to celebrate her father’s 70th birthday.
Courtesy of Rebecca Bell.

The same forced separation — which many claim is the result of red tape and political posturing by President Joe Biden and British prime minister Boris Johnson — has placed an almost unbearable strain on new mom, Kimberly.

The 38-year-old Brooklynite, who also asked not to use her last name for professional reasons, delivered her baby boy, Aiden, last December. Thanks to the travel ban, his doting grandmother, Gill, 68, who lives in South East London, has only interacted with him on FaceTime.

“It’s absolutely heartbreaking that she can’t see him in person,” said Kimberly. “We are never going to get back the time my parents would have spent with Aiden as a newborn.”

But the technical risk manager counts her blessings that she has a green card. If she visits the UK, she can journey without the fear of being sent back on her return to the US.

“We’re planning a five-day trip in August and will quarantine the whole time at my mum’s,” Kimberly said.

Then, channeling some British black humor, she joked: “At least she will get to see her grandson before he gets to college.”