Portugal and Israel are among a dozen countries which have been placed on England’s first ever “green list”, allowing people to go abroad from 17 May and return home without the need to quarantine.
Announcing the first easing of tight restrictions on foreign travel in months, the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said people would soon be able to book foreign holidays and make trips to see friends or relatives living overseas. He also announced plans to make digital vaccine passports available.
But restrictions are being tightened on three countries, Nepal, the Maldives and Turkey, where the Champions League final is scheduled to be played between Manchester City and Chelsea. Shapps said the government had offered to host the match in the UK.
Despite the resumption of international travel having been earmarked for 17 May in Boris Johnson’s roadmap, questions lingered about whether new Covid variants and case rises across the world could lead to the date being pushed back.
Shapps confirmed leisure trips abroad would be able to recommence in just over a week, and announced details of the new traffic-light system that will grade countries depending on their case and vaccine rates .
Travellers arriving from countries on the green list will not have to quarantine upon their return to the UK, while those on the amber list must self-isolate at home for 10 days, but can be released at day five if they get a negative Covid test result. The red list country rules remain that only UK residents and nationals are allowed in – and all must quarantine in a hotel for 10 days.
The 10 countries on the green list are: Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Brunei, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, Israel and Portugal – including the Azores and Madeira. Also on the green list are the territories of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, and Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha.
While the green list will make travel easier from certain countries, getting into them may prove incredibly difficult. Several only allow their own nationals into the country. A government source said: “It’s so hard to get into some of these places, it’s hardly like we’re encouraging people to go to them.”
Shapps admitted people were likely to be disappointed that countries such as France, Italy and Spain were not on the green list. “As summer progresses, we hope more traditional tourist destinations will be unlocked, but we have to turn the key slowly,” he said.
Opening the borders too quickly risks a return to “the days of misery, suffering and loss” caused by Covid infection peaks, Shapps said. “For now we must tread carefully, respecting the science that will guide us along the way.
“Our success in combating Covid here … is not yet replicated in many places abroad. We in this country have managed to construct a fortress against Covid but the disease is still prevalent in other parts of the world.”
Travellers were also told to expect longer queues at airports, and that if they wanted to travel to a green-list country, they should make sure they could get a refund if they needed to cancel given changes to the lists.
Shapps said the lists would be reviewed every three weeks, but has previously suggested major transit hubs such as the United Arab Emirates could remain on the red list indefinitely, given the number of passengers from across the world who are passing through its busy Dubai and Abu Dhabi airports.
He also said he was very open to Britain hosting the Champions League final at the end of May. “Given that there are two English clubs in that final, we look forward to hearing what they have to say,” he said.
Travellers will also be able to show a Covid passport proving they have been vaccinated to potentially avoid quarantine in the country they travel to from the UK.
Frantic work is under way to update the NHS app so people can use it as digital verification they have been vaccinated. Those unable to access the NHS app will be able to request a paper certificate from the NHS by ringing 119 – but not until 17 May.
Shapps’ announcement affects only people living in England. The administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have yet to update their rules. However they are expected to be “broadly similar in design”, the transport secretary has said.
Huw Merriman, the Tory chair of the Commons transport select committee welcomed the lifting of the travel ban, but said “barriers remain in place for most of our popular destinations” and that travellers heading to England from much of Europe would face increased costs for testing that would deter travel.
He called on the government to be transparent about the data that underpins decisions about changing the list, and to move quickly to digitise documents such as the passenger locator form. “This should allow for more countries to move from amber to green this summer and unleash the pent-up desire to travel felt by so many across the country. Many jobs and livelihoods will depend on it,” he said.
Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow home secretary, said the government had “failed to protect our borders from Covid with a lax and ineffective system that has allowed dangerous strains to reach the UK”. He added: “The system announced will continue that failure, as only a tiny percentage of people will be required to undertake hotel quarantine, despite the virus continuing to mutate and transmit across the world.”
Response from the travel industry was highly critical. Tim Alderslade, the chief executive of Airlines UK, described the announcement as a missed opportunity.
“With so few countries making it on to the green list, it represents a reopening of air travel in name only. By contrast, the EU has said vaccinated people will be able to travel without restrictions, which leaves the UK at risk of falling behind and not opening up international travel to key markets across Europe as well as the United States.
“We strongly believe that, alongside the domestic economy, travel can be safely reopened and so we must see major additions to the green list at the next review point in three weeks, alongside a simpler and much-reduced testing burden so that travel does not become the preserve of the wealthy only.”
Gloria Guevera, the president of the World Travel & Tourism Council said: “While we understand that protecting public health should be the priority, the UK is being too cautious and risks losing its hard-won competitive advantage achieved by the early vaccine rollout by being too slow to allow the significant resumption of international travel.
“Holidaymakers and business travellers will be disappointed by today’s news, with so few countries on the ‘green list’, while Europe steals a march on the UK by continuing to open up and welcome visitors back.”