Hopes are rising for foreign holidays to be permitted from May, with the public given a “watchlist” of countries whose quarantine status is at risk of changing to help with planning and to avoid the chaos of last summer.
Under proposals that could come into force from 17 May, countries will be placed in a traffic light system with green, amber and red lists that will set out whether, and where, travellers must isolate on returning to England, government officials confirmed.
A “watchlist” will be drawn up to identify countries that could switch from green to amber, to help passengers plan in advance, the Department for Transport (DfT) said.
Last year, when news about alterations to travel corridors arrived with minimal notice, a mass rush occurred for flights and ferries to reach England before quarantine was imposed.
Even with the watchlist, the DfT said, ministers “will not hesitate to act immediately” to change a country’s status if required.
Boris Johnson this week dampened speculation that non-essential trips abroad could restart on 17 May, saying he did “not wish to give hostages to fortune” and was nervous about “the virus being reimported”.
However, the new details about the plan for easing restrictions are based on an earliest start point of 17 May, raising hopes that the changes will come then.
Ministers are expected to announce near the start of May whether travel can resume on that date, and will also then give the first list of countries in each colour-based list.
This will be reviewed regularly, taking into account factors such as Covid infection rates, the prevalence of variants, and the extent of vaccination programmes. The restrictions for each tier of the system will be looked at for potential changes on 28 June, 31 July and 1 October.
Destinations with the highest vaccination rates at present include the US, Israel, Chile and the Maldives.
People arriving in England from green-list countries will have to take a pre-departure virus test and a PCR test on the day after their return, but will not need to self-isolate or take any other tests.
The government said this would halve the cost of testing, and it hoped to work with the travel industry and testing companies to reduce this further. Johnson has said cheaper rapid tests were under consideration as an alternative to PCR tests.
People coming from amber-list countries will have to take a pre-departure test, isolate for 10 days at home, and get tested on days two and eight after their journey. These travellers can, as now, do test-and-release from day five. “Arrivals from amber countries also have the option of taking another test on day five of quarantine, and being released early if this is also negative,” officials said.
The red list, which has been in force since the start of January and largely applies to South America and southern Africa, given the coronavirus variants discovered in those regions, will remain the same as now, meaning people travelling will have to quarantine in a government hotel for 10 days.
The government said the type of pre-departure test, whether a PCR or rapid test, had never been specified, but it had to meet certain standards.
However, the need to test, even from green-list countries disappointed the travel industry, with warnings that the present high cost of PCR tests would make it difficult for many to leave the country. EasyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren said: “A two test system including a PCR test for travel from low risk green countries is a blow to all travellers wishing to visit family and friends or take a much-needed holiday this summer. This risks reversing the clock and making flying only for the wealthy. Moreover it is hugely frustrating that the global travel taskforce has not delivered what the prime minister said they should achieve in making this flexible and affordable.”
Airport Operators Association chief executive Karen Dee said the framework offered “only a glimmer of hope”, adding: “While it is welcome that the new green category does not require quarantine, it is not yet a truly green light to travel. The proposed testing regime will add significant costs that could limit travel possibilities for many and must be regularly reviewed.
“As it stands, a meaningful restart of aviation is not yet possible under the new system.”
Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, representing UK-registered carriers, said: “This does not represent a reopening of travel as promised by ministers, and the insistence on expensive and unnecessary PCR testing rather than rapid testing – even for low-risk countries – will pose an unsustainable burden on passengers, making travel unviable and unaffordable for many people.”
Foreign travel from the UK is banned except for a handful of purposes, and passengers who leave must fill out a “permission to travel form”. This would be scrapped under the changes.
Grant Shapps, the travel secretary, said the new framework “will help allow us to reopen travel safely and sustainably, ensure we protect our hard-won achievements on the vaccine rollout, and offer peace of mind to both passengers and industry as we begin to take trips abroad once again”.
Travel certificates are also being developed by the NHS and the government to help people provide proof of their Covid-19 vaccine and test status when travelling to other countries, which might also drop quarantine requirements for them.
The devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland set their own policies on quarantine.