Brexit and COVID-19 have been a perfect storm for Brits living abroad this Christmas and into the New Year. With hundreds of flights between the United Kingdom (UK) and the European Union (EU) canceled, borders closed to imports and exports along with the Channel, and Christmas cards from Austria to the UK never even making it out of the country until well after the New Year.
It has been a New Year like no other for Britons in Austria – and vice versa.
Many were hoping to travel one way or the other to visit family for the holidays, now with borders closed and flights halted due to the fears of the new, more infectious coronavirus strain in the UK, many had to change plans at the last minute and spent Christmas far from family and friends.
In late December, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock bluntly described the new COVID-19 strain as “out of control” in the UK. The Netherlands and Belgium were the first to close their borders (Dec. 19) to passengers entering from the UK. Soon, most European nations had also issued a travel ban, including flights to and from Austria on December 21st, under constant review as the situation developed. The last-minute nature of these changes meant completely altered expectations for Christmas.
Lindsey Dickinson’s story was a common one: “I was due to fly back to London after a year of not seeing my family, and to introduce them to my 3-month-old son.” A British citizen married to an Austrian and living here, she is one of hundreds forced into an unexpected change of plans that left many families separated during the holiday season.
For others it was the reverse. Sarah-Louise Rodgers, who lives in North London with her Austrian husband, had planned to fly to Vienna early Christmas week. They never left.
It was a similar story for other Austrians living and working in the UK. Another British woman reported she was supposed to fly to Vienna with her Austrian boyfriend. “We were going to meet his family for five days, the first time he would have seen them in over a year,” she told Metropole.
Even though the new strain of COVID-19 had already been detected in Austria, the government issued the travel ban to stem the spread. France had issued a similar ban, while opening its border to those who could produce a negative COVID-19 PCR test.
Some, like 25-year-old English teacher, Oliver Tulk, didn’t even bother booking a flight home, due to fears over putting his family at greater risk.
“There were big discussions about whether it should happen,” he said. “My grandmother is very elderly, so I wanted to see her. But putting her at risk didn’t make sense.”
Brexit has also played a big part in some Britons deciding not to go home for Christmas this year. After the December 31st deadline for Brexit, the UK is subject to the same scrutiny as other non-EU nations creating the possibility of more travel bans in future.
“The UK seems like a kind of sinking ship right now,” Oliver told us, “It’s just such a state of constantly not knowing”.
This comes as the UK is still in negotiations with the EU on trading rules.. Even with the Christmas Eve Treaty on industrial goods and fishing rights, rules in many areas, including finance, services and education, have yet to be worked out. The widespread uncertainty and unease added to fears around travel and visiting home before the Brexit deadline.
Oliver spent Christmas in his flat in Vienna with friends and flatmates.
Since settling a deal on Christmas Eve for Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU), the United Kingdom (UK) has had what some economists have euphemistically called ‘teething troubles’ since January 1st when Britain officially left the EU. The new strain of COVID-19 only made things worse.
A study by the London School of Economics predicts that under the Brexit Deal, exports to the EU will fall by one-third. Transport across the channel has already faced significant delays, with too little time even to create the needed forms for customs, handling fees and VAT. The new more infectious COVID variant has turned the contortions into a farce.
“It’s a lot more cumbersome,” said Christian Kesberg, Austrian Trade Commissioner for the UK. “There are a lot of administrative hurdles.”
However, at least it is the same for everyone: While Austrian businesses will face a lot more ‘red tape’ to trade with the UK, Brexit was “non-discriminatory,” he said, “as everyone – Germans, Italians, etc – are hit with the same costs.” Kesberg explained, “Companies will need to look for alternatives. Austrian businesses will find alternate markets. Perhaps when things calm down, they will look again to Britain.”
These costs include sending a commissions officer to the UK to support UK businesses trading with Austrian firms, or who face increased export prices.
EU Brexit Negotiator, Michael Barnier, warned of “obvious and inevitable consequences” with some “glitches, problems and breakdowns,” caused by new paper work. Barnier hoped that this could be cleared up within a few weeks.
Kesberg said the corona virus was eclipsing Brexit in the disruption of trade post-Brexit.
“The corona resurgence is the greatest worry for businesses right now,” Kesberg said. “There is a deep recession everywhere, so imports will decline, and exports will decline. It will have little to do with Brexit. It will add to it, but the main problem is the borders in the wake of the pandemic.”
Even the Austrian Postal Service has been hobbled, with deliveries to the UK delayed by several weeks. Thousands of letters and packages have been left sitting in Austrian warehouses unable to leave due to the flight ban. In many cases, letters and packages sent for Christmas have still not arrived.
There’s also new paperwork as well with post entering from the UK since 1st January, the the UK is now a “third country,” outside of the EU bloc. When sending a parcel, you now need customs documents, which you must register and fill out here. When receiving a parcel, it will be taxed if the value is above €22 and levied a customs duty above €150.
“Brexit is no obstacle,” a spokesman for the Austrian Postal Service told Metropole. Since Monday, January 11th postal service between Austria and the UK has resumed via alternate land routes across the Channel. However, due to the increasingly unsafe coronavirus situation in some regions of the UK, service may be “highly limited,” in both directions.
“You should expect delays for the coming weeks,” the spokesman said.