As Boris Johnson boarded a flight to New York on Sunday, the British prime minister was uncharacteristically pessimistic about his chances of persuading President Joe Biden to reopen the US border for people travelling from the UK.
“I don’t think we’re necessarily going to crack it this week,” he told reporters as he travelled to the US for two days of meetings coinciding with the UN General Assembly. “I’ve got to warn you I don’t think this is going to be necessarily fixed this week.”
Within hours of Johnson’s arrival in the US, however, the White House had unexpectedly reversed course.
In a hastily-arranged press conference, Jeff Zients, the head of Biden’s Covid-19 task force, told reporters on Monday morning the travel bans that had applied to the UK, Ireland, Europe’s Schengen travel area, China, India, Iran, Brazil and South Africa would all be dropped from early November.
Instead, the US will demand that all foreigners are vaccinated before entering the country, regardless of where they are coming from.
The move was a major diplomatic victory for Brussels, Dublin and London, which led the push to rescind the travel bans. But its sudden announcement after months of resistance from the White House took almost everyone involved in the process by surprise — including, it seems, the British prime minister.
“We have done it faster than we expected, but that’s thanks to the hard work of our teams,” said Johnson on Monday, referring to groups of US and European officials who had been discussing the subject for weeks.
One official involved in the transatlantic discussions said: “We had hoped we might get some sort of timeframe from the Americans for lifting the travel ban. We did not expect they would go the whole way and suddenly announce they were lifting it.”
Most of the bans were put in place by Donald Trump, the former US president, at the beginning of the pandemic.
The bans did not apply to US citizens, diplomats, green card holders and anyone able to secure an exemption because their travel was in the US national interest. And this summer even as Europe began to open up to American tourists, the US held firm, blocking not only tourists but family members and businesspeople from entering the country.
The restrictions caused immense frustration for European leaders, especially as the EU and UK began to do better than the US in terms of both vaccinations and case rates.
In June the Biden administration set up joint working groups of experts and policy officials with the UK, EU, Canada and Mexico, to discuss how to open the US border up safely.
According to those involved with that process, the British used those group meetings to share reams of data with the Americans about the trajectory of the pandemic in the UK and what had happened as the country began to open its borders.
British officials shared everything from information on how well vaccines were coping with the Delta coronavirus variant to how many people came into the country and subsequently tested positive for Covid-19. The data were especially useful to the US, where such information is held at a state level and is difficult to compile and analyse.
A White House official said: “The UK was very helpful about offering data on their pandemic situation and what they were seeing in terms of things like post-arrival testing.”
Meanwhile, European leaders were more vocal in their public criticism of the Biden administration’s policies, and more willing to hit back with countermeasures.
With cases rising in the US and little sign of the White House budging on its travel ban, the EU last month advised its member states to reimpose restrictions on American travellers. A day later Stavros Lambrinidis, the EU ambassador to the US, tweeted: “The [US] travel ban seriously harms vital economic and human ties, at a time when they’re most needed.”
Lambrinidis told the Financial Times on Monday: “It is quite obvious that when you have got the collective pressure of 450m Europeans at all different levels pushing for something, that is going to make a difference.”
On a recent call with Zients, Thierry Breton, the European commissioner for internal markets, was especially blunt. “I was very clear with him, I said: ‘Look Jeff, we are the first continent of people being vaccinated, we are at 73 per cent, you are at 66 per cent and you are plateauing. We want to help you . . . and you treat Europe like Iran, China, Chile, Brazil. There is something that I don’t understand,” Breton recounted in an interview with the FT on Monday.
Part of the delay was simply bad timing. Just as officials on both sides of the Atlantic believed they were close to a deal, the Delta variant began to spread rapidly, pushing up infections, hospitalisations and deaths in Europe and the US. White House officials worried about the optics of reopening the border in the middle of another deadly wave of infections.
But with Biden focused heavily on boosting the US’s flagging vaccination rate, European and British officials were finally able to persuade the White House that a vaccine requirement for incoming travellers would reinforce the president’s message rather than undermine it.
In a series of calls with high-ranking US officials on Friday, European ambassadors were told that progress was being made. But as leaders from around the world boarded flights for New York for the General Assembly, there were still details to be figured out.
US officials have decided to accept people who have been vaccinated with AstraZeneca’s vaccine, according to several people with knowledge of the decision, even though it has not been approved by US regulators. But they have not yet decided what other vaccines not approved by US authorities they will accept.
And while the White House has said children will be exempt from the new vaccine requirement, they have not decided where to set the cut-off point.
Johnson was due to discuss the deal with Biden on Tuesday. Breton was preparing to put the travel ban at the top of his agenda for an in-person meeting with Zients on Monday, but received a call shortly before saying it would be lifted.
White House officials had decided that rather than wait to finalise the details of the policy, they would forestall the coming diplomatic push by announcing it and working out the small print later.
“We have known for months that this was the direction we were going in,” a White House official said. “In the end, however, the timing just worked.”