Boris Johnson to open up international travel? What the PM is likely to say on Easter Monday

People who have had both jabs likely to present a lower risk to UK population than those who have not

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
@SimonCalder
Monday 05 April 2021 14:01
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Related video: Boris Johnson says Britain can look forward to ‘brighter days ahead’

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, very few people are travelling for pleasure.

Overnight stays away from home are still banned in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, while holidays abroad are illegal from anywhere in the UK.

Yet international leisure travel may be possible six weeks from now. The prime minister will set out a framework for resuming trips abroad. So what can travellers expect, whether desperate to see loved ones from whom they are separated, or keen to escape for a holiday?

These are the essential questions and answers.

What are current rules – and why are they so tough?

Non-essential trips beyond the UK are banned, with a £5,000 penalty for even turning up at an airport and hoping to travel abroad.

The government want to suppress international leisure travel – which includes visits to family and partners – to reduce the risk of cases of Covid-19 being imported to the UK.

There is particular concern among epidemiologists that new and more infectious variants could be brought into the UK and undermine the progress of the vaccine programme.

Read more: 

People with the right of residence in the UK – which includes British and Irish citizens – are allowed to travel back from anywhere in the world.

But the conditions for entering England are based on a “traffic light” system – with different requirements depending on the colour assigned to the country from which they are arriving (and any others they have visited in the past 10 days).

The red category requires 11 nights of hotel quarantine at a cost of £1,750 for a solo traveller. The current 35 countries – mainly in South America and southern Africa – will be joined on Friday 9 April by Kenya, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines.

For amber it’s 10 days of self-isolation at home (though with the chance to release early in England if you pay for another test after five days).

The only country on green, with effectively no restrictions, is Ireland.

But the UK restrictions are only part of the puzzle: every destination country will have its own rules in place. Ireland, for example, requires arrivals from Great Britain to go into two weeks of self-isolation (which can be reduced with a negative test after five days).

Scotland has only two colours: green for Ireland and red for everyone else.

What is the prime minister likely to say?

The government’s roadmap to recovery holds out some hope that travellers from England at least could be able to leave the country on 17 May; Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland may decide differently.

But whether any of us would want to go abroad for fun depends on the rules for coming back in.

Boris Johnson is expected to formalise the traffic light system for arrivals to England, and to spell out the conditions attached to each.

Wherever you travel from, you are likely to need a negative Covid test in the 72 hours before departure to the UK, and at least one other test after arrival.

It is not expected that the free lateral flow tests made available to residents to England could be used by returning travellers to comply with border rules.

This is how each category could look.

Red is likely to continue with a ban on arrivals who do not have right of residence in the UK. Hotel quarantine is likely to continue, although properly managed self-isolation at home may be considered. At least two tests after arrival will be required.

The number of people arriving from red list countries is expected to remain very low, at 100-150 per day.

Amber is the category with the largest number of countries. The conditions are likely to include one or more tests on arrival, as well as a spell of self-isolation – though quarantine could be avoided by people who have been vaccinated.

The proposal for “one law for the jabbed, another for the rest” is highly controversial.

Green will apply to countries where infection rates are very low or at least declining steadily from a moderate level; an effective vaccination programme with a high take-up; and there are no significant “variants of concern”. It may be that only a test before departure is required.

Will it help if I have a ‘vaccine passport’?

There are reasonable medical grounds for saying that people who have had both jabs are likely to present a lower risk to other people than those who have not.

Some foreign countries will make it easy, or even compulsory, for British holidaymakers to produce evidence of both jabs to be let in.

But there is no international agreement on “vaccine passports” (or, more accurately, coronavirus status certificates).

And while it may make medical sense to have a lighter touch for immunised travellers returning to the UK, it would discriminate against those who are likely to be waiting for months for both jabs – as well as people who cannot or will not be vaccinated.

One rumour doing the rounds in the travel industry says that the prime minister may announce easier travel for people who have had both jabs precisely to boost the uptake of vaccines – by incentivising particularly younger people to be vaccinated to allow them to go abroad and return without undue hassle.

I am travelling with my children. What happens to them?

It is likely that children of a certain age will be exempt from border rules, or subject to a relatively light touch – a test or two.

When do we find out which category each country is in?

That is what the travel industry and prospective travellers desperately want to know.

Understandably the government wants to make its decision as late as possible, so as to minimise the chance that the outlook in a country could change significantly, and it has been suggested the final decision could be made as late as 10 May – just a week before the first possible date for international travel.

Yet the airlines and holiday companies normally plan capacity months and years ahead, not days.

Having to work with a very late decision would leave the firms in an almost impossible situation after over a year of heavy losses.

Do they make educated guesses and put plenty of capacity into, say, Portugal, but run the risk of a late change? Or do they cancel everything for May and possibly into early June, and start planning only when the initial classification is known? If they cannot be reasonably certain of operating at a profit, the latter option looks the most likely.

Which nations will make good candidates for the ‘green’ list?

A range of nations has been mentioned, including Malta and Portugal in Europe; Israel; the Gulf countries, especially the UAE and Bahrain; the Maldives; and the US. But with six weeks before any international leisure travel will be possible, it is far too early to say.

If you go back six weeks to mid-February, in the UK there were still an average of 10,000 new cases and several hundred deaths a day.

So while I am confident I will be able to travel somewhere abroad on 17 May, it is far too early to say what the choice of destinations might be.

It is possible that the government may distinguish between different parts of the same country. At present Germany regards six regions of Spain, including the Balearic Islands, as low risk.

Will I get warning of when a country moves from one category to a tougher one?

Probably. The Department for Transport announced the addition of four nations to the red list on Good Friday, but gave travellers a week to get back to the UK without having to enter hotel quarantine. This could become established practice.

What if I visit more than one country?

If you have been in nations in more than one category in the past 10 days, the toughest category applies.

What if my destination is ‘amber’ and I haven’t been jabbed; can I cancel?

If the twin-track plan goes ahead, older travellers will be able to return without problem, because they have had both jabs, while younger holidaymakers could be required to self-isolate.

This presents a really awkward situation for the holiday companies. Naturally they want to provide trips for as many people as possible, but they also recognise that for many customers quarantining for 10 days is simply not a feasible option.

I expect to see a fair amount of flexibility, which could include an opportunity to change or cancel a planned holiday if you have not been vaccinated. 

Don’t be surprised, though, if you are refused a cash refund. The Package Travel Regulations indicate a holiday company is within its rights to enforce a contract even if quarantine awaits on your arrival home. The rules simply require the travel firm to provide the holiday as booked; subsequent problems for its customers are not legally the business’s concern. 

Will other countries want us?

Yes, and many of our favourite destinations are settling into a pattern of “JTR”: “jab, test or recovered”? Croatia has become the latest Mediterranean country to say it has opened its borders to tourists who can produce evidence of a vaccination certificate, recovery from infection or a negative Covid test taken within 48 hours of arrival.

Thanks to the remarkable success of the UK’s vaccine roll-out, British holidaymakers have gone from the “sick men and women of Europe” to the “golden girls and boys of summer” – with UK travellers seen as presenting a reduced risk compared with other locations.

Turkey has said it will welcome people from the UK whether or not they have had the jab.

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