International leisure travel may resume from the UK on 17 May, the government has said. 

But strict rules on returning to the UK will be enforced – based on a “traffic light” system that assigns red, amber or green to every overseas country. The main concern is that variants of concern could be imported and ultimately undermine the UK’s vaccination programme.

The Independent has canvassed opinions in the travel industry and researched the data on which the government will decide. These are the key questions on what we know – and don’t know – so far.

What are the current rules?

At present holidays and family visits abroad are illegal, under legislation to reduce number of people coming into the UK. Around 20,000 travellers are arriving in the UK from abroad each day, not counting hauliers.


A de facto traffic light system already exists for arrivals to the UK.

The only foreign country with “green” status is Ireland. Neither tests nor quarantine apply for arrivals to the UK from the Republic.

From all other nations, a negative Covid test is required before departure to the UK.

At the high-risk end of the traffic light spectrum, countries perceived as presenting special danger are on the UK’s red list. At present 39 nations are listed, mainly in southern and eastern Africa and in South America – but also including the UAE, Qatar, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines.

Arrivals from red countries must pre-pay for 11 nights in hotel quarantine – at a cost starting at £1,750 – plus two post-arrival PCR tests.

Every other nation is rated at “amber” – which requires 10 days self-isolation at home plus two PCR tests. Paying for a third post-arrival test on day five can trigger early release.

The amber list applies only for arrivals to England. Scotland has tougher rules on inbound travellers, regarding all nations (apart from Ireland) as red list. Wales and Northern Ireland do not currently have arrivals from overseas countries.

Read more: Which countries are on the red list?

What will change?

According to the latest Global Travel Taskforce report, subtitled “The Safe Return of International Travel,” a list of green nations regarded as low risk will be compiled and published before the restart of trips abroad.

Arrivals from green countries need not quarantine but must take a PCR test within two days of arrival. The cost is likely to be around £60.

Restrictions on red and amber nations are likely to stay as they are.

Countries may be moved from one category to another at any time. But the government says it will also introduce a “Green Watchlist” that will “identify countries most at risk of moving from green to amber”. This has become known as “flashing green”.

The idea is to avoid the chaos last July when, for example, Spain was placed on the quarantine list at just a few hours’ notice.

Instead the aim will be to give at least a week’s warning, so that most holidaymakers can finish their trips as normal – and anyone booked to travel to a “flashing green” nation can consider whether or not to go.

The government stresses that there is no guarantee of a week’s notice and that decisions on moving countries from green to amber or red will be taken on the basis of data.

In addition, each destination abroad will come up with its own stipulations for accepting or rejecting overseas visitors. Those decisions are, of course, beyond the scope of the UK government.

When do we find out which nation is on which list?

“As soon as we possibly can,” the prime minister said at a Downing Street briefing on 20 April – but Boris Johnson added that it would not be before early May.

The Global Travel Taskforce report emphasises that no decision about whether to open up leisure trips abroad will be taken before then: “We cannot yet confirm resumption of international travel from 17 May. We will provide further details by early May.”

The aviation minister, Robert Courts, told the Transport Select Committee: “We need to be in a position whereby when we make those decisions it is on the data that exists at that time. We are still some distance away from that date at the moment.

“I anticipate that in the early part of May we will be able to give some more detail into which category each country will fall.”

The Independent has sought more clarification on when exactly travellers and the travel industry will learn the details, but the Department for Transport (DfT) has been unable to be more specific.

“Early May” covers every date between 1 and 15 May. The assumption in the travel industry is that the announcement will not be made over the weekend of 1 and 2 May, and that it is likely to happen in the working week beginning on Monday 3 May.

But some people with political connections have told The Independent that the government may give only one week’s notice, pushing the announcement back to Monday10 May. The thinking is that the closer the announcement is to the restart, the more certain the data and the lower the chance that the lists will have to be hurriedly amended.

What is the response of the travel industry?

Simon McNamara of the International Air Transport Association (Iata), said: “The report talks about early May; it does not even give a hard date for when the classification will be set.”

Peter Liney, chief executive of Great Rail Journeys, confirmed this view, telling The Independent: “Say they say on 3 May all of Europe is going to be green. We wouldn’t try to run our May programme.

“You can’t run the business on speculation in the media about what countries will be in green.”

Huw Merriman, chair of the Transport Select Committee – and, like Robert Courts, a Tory MP – said: “It is going to be incredibly difficult for anyone to book a holiday for summer if they do not know what the rules of the road are going to be.”

What are the government’s criteria for judging who goes on which list?

The status of a country’s vaccination programme, infection rates relative to the amount of testing, the prevalence of variants of concern and access to genomic sequencing (enabling variants of concern to be identified).

To be on the green list, a nation will need to have:

reliable data on infection rates that shows them as low or at least steadily and sustainably declining.a competent vaccination programme with a significant proportion of the public jabbed and a high take-up insignificant prevalence of variants of concern.

Any clues, then?

Yes, starting with Europe, where data is reasonably reliable and which is not a particular worry in terms of “variants of concern”.

The DfT says: “Surveillance has found that few cases of the [South Africa] variant have been identified as being imported from Europe, with most coming from other parts of the world.” So the main driver of the government’s decision will be infection rates.

The measure preferred by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) is for new coronavirus cases in the past 14 days per 100,000 inhabitants. These numbers are also dependent on the number of people tested, which the UK government will take into account.

Europe’s top 30

Given that the UK’s rate is around 50 and falling, most of Europe looks pretty horrible at present. The worst 10 are all at least a dozen times worse: Hungary (860), Poland (840), Cyprus (770), Estonia (770), Sweden (770), France (760), Slovenia (660), Croatia (630), Bulgaria (620) and the Czech Republic (600).

The middle 10 comprise the group of nations which are more than six times as bad (but less than 12 times): Netherlands (560), Belgium (470), Luxembourg (460), Austria (450), Lithuania (440), Malta (410), Italy (400), Greece (390), Romania (350) and Latvia (340).

The least bad 10 range from “still quite poor” to “excellent”: Germany (275), Slovakia (240), Spain (210), Norway (195), Denmark (165), Malta (140), Ireland (130), Finland (105), Portugal (70) and Iceland (25).

Based on this preferred part of the top 30 table, at present Iceland should certainly make the green list. Malta, although it is almost three times as bad as the UK at present, has a very successful vaccination programme and no shared borders.

Finland and Portugal may make the cut – the latter is the only major holiday country likely to do so from May.

Ireland has been treated differently from all other foreign countries throughout the coronavirus pandemic. The Republic is a member of the Common Travel Area (along with the UK, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands) and no testing or quarantine has ever been required by the UK. This special status is likely to continue.

Anywhere else?

Yes, three clear candidates. Gibraltar, where most adults have already been vaccinated, is a certainty. While the new Covid case rate is about the same as the UK, that is largely because of a one-day spike in cases a week ago. That will soon fall out of the figures leaving Gibraltar with probably the best rates in Europe.

Directly across the Strait of Gibraltar, Morocco saw its already low case numbers fall sharply from November 2020 to the end of March 2021. Although there has been a very small uptick, the absolute numbers are still very low – just 3 new cases per 100,000 people over the course of two weeks. Even allowing for data shortfalls, that remains a very impressive record.

Israel is the major country with the best vaccine roll-out, and partly because of the success of the programme case numbers have dwindled sharply and steadily since a peak in January. The country has just removed the obligation to wear masks outdoors and aims to open up more fully in May. Vaccinated-only British tourists will be able to visit from late May.

Could individual islands or regions join the green list?

Yes. Grant Shapps has confirmed that individual islands will be considered for green list status, even if other parts of the same country are regarded as higher risk.

He said of the “islands approach” that was eventually adopted by the UK last summer: “I want to do that again. I don’t want to go backwards, I want to go forwards.”

That decision is likely to benefit travellers hoping to visit the Balearic Islands of Spain, some of the Azores in Portugal and potentially some Greek islands – though current infection rates are high in some of those locations.

Further afield?

The UAE has a flat level of new cases at around 250 per 100,000 people in the past two weeks, and has so far administered four million doses of vaccines to its population of 10 million. But the transport secretary appeared to rule out the Gulf state indefinitely because Dubai and Abu Dhabi are key air hubs.

On 20 April Grant Shapps said: “We are not restricting UAE because of levels of coronavirus in the UAE. The specific issue in the UAE is one of transit. It’s because they are a major transit hub.

“The Joint Biosecurity Centre can work wonders studying all this detail, but eventually you get to the point where they are having to make too many assumptions about where people are travelling to/from.

“And that is specific issue we have with the UAE as opposed to prevalence or some other reason.”

The US has suffered some appallingly high infection and death rates. Yet the vaccination programme is going well, and there are rumours that a bilateral deal will be struck with the UK to remove barriers to travel (which are currently much higher on the American side than the British).

Some Caribbean countries, including Barbados, Grenada and Jamaica, could make the green list thanks to their effective vaccination programmes. A number of Indian Ocean island states are possible candidates: the Maldives, the Seychelles and Sri Lanka.

Across the Asia-Pacific region there are dozens of candidates for the green list, notably Australia and New Zealand – which have just begin a trans-Tasman travel bubble between them – and oceanic locations such as Samoa and the Cook Islands.

These countries will certainly not yet open to British visitors. Along with miscellaneous British Overseas Territories that are impossible to reach direct, their inclusion will pad out the green list but will not open any doors.

You haven’t mentioned Turkey, Latin America or Africa (except Morocco) …

Turkey is currently enduring an all-pandemic peak of new cases, with rates probably around 900 per 100,000 people – higher than anywhere wholly in Europe. In addition there are concerns, first revealed last autumn, about the reliability of data. Even if the vaccine programme works wonders, it is difficult to see Turkey making the green list during the first half of this year.

Much of Latin America is off-limits due to fears of the Brazilian variant: every country in South America, plus Panama, is on the UK red list. 

Cuba, which has a first-rate health service and is developing two vaccines of its own, must be the leading candidate for the green list. Mexico, the main draw for British travellers, has a slow vaccine programme.

Africa has been on the UK’s “no-go” list for 13 months, apart from a brief opening up of Rwanda and Namibia in the autumn. Any rapid rehabilitation of significant numbers of African countries looks highly unlikely.

Does my vaccination status make any difference?

No. While having had both jabs may well open doors for you abroad, the government has not made any provision for people who have completed a course of vaccinations to be excused some or all of the restrictions on returning to the UK.

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