How the new rules on international travel will work from 17 May

The traveller’s guide to traffic lights

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Friday 09 April 2021 08:26 BST
Wait ‘two or three weeks’ to book foreign holidays, Grant Shapps says

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At last the government has confirmed that summer holidays abroad can go ahead from England.

“International travel could resume from 17 May at the earliest in an accessible and affordable way,” the government says as it publishes its second Global Travel Taskforce report.

By the restart date, all non-essential foreign trips will have been banned for 19 weeks. 

Those desperate to see loved ones abroad, and holidaymakers racing to the sun will be able to leave – but with plenty of strings attached. 

These are the key questions and answers.

Just a reminder of the rules on international travel right now?

Non-essential travel is banned, with a £5,000 fixed penalty for anyone who tries to go abroad on holiday. Exempt travellers – whether for work, education, property reasons or family events – must complete a Declaration to Travel.

All arrivals from abroad (except Ireland) must quarantine, either self-isolating at home for 10 days or – from red list countries – paying for 11 nights in a hotel.

What do we know about travel from 17 May?

It will no longer be illegal to leave the country, and correspondingly the need for a Declaration to Travel will end.

Read more: 

Every overseas nation will impose its own requirements on prospective visitors, which may include requirements for testing and/or proof of vaccination. Many countries will continue to impose restrictions, including total bans, on British travellers.

The Global Travel Taskforce report is mainly about what happens when you come back into the UK.

Its key recommendation is classifying each country (or region) as red, amber or green in a “traffic light” system dependent on coronavirus infection rates, the prevalence of “variants of concern” and the progress of the vaccination programme.

But initially, travellers will face multiple hurdles and expense, with even arrivals from green list countries requiring pre-book tests that will cost a family of four £500 or more.

International travel could initially be largely be the preserve of people who are desperate to see loved ones they haven’t seen for maybe a year – plus and frustrated holidaymakers who are prepared to jump through any hoops and pay handsomely for the pleasure and privilege of travelling abroad again.

Why so difficult?

The government is alarmed about soaring infection rates in Europe and beyond. So in effect it has decided to run a pilot scheme from the middle of May through to the end of June and possibly into July.

The plan is that people who want or need to escape will be guinea pigs. By the time the main school summer holiday month of August  arrive, any teething problems should be sorted out. 

At some point it is likely that the onerous and expensive testing rules will be eased, more countries will join the green list and – possibly – vaccinated travellers from amber nations may be able to escape quarantine.

Talk me through the traffic light system

Travellers returning to England, as well as incoming overseas citizens, will have to comply with a system in which nations (or possibly individual regions or islands) are classed as red, amber or green. All three categories have stringent conditions attached. 

From all three grades, you won’t be able to get onto a plane to the UK until you have completed an online Passenger Locator Form (PLF) and provided a negative test result – which includes rapid antigen or lateral flow tests. These are cheap and straightforward, and many airports are equipped to provide them. The government has said it will consider whether it would be able to provide pre-departure tests.

From low-risk countries – or regions – on the green list, there will be no need to quarantine on return, but an expensive pre-booked post-arrival PCR test will still be needed. This is likely to cost upwards of £100. It must be taken on the day of arrival (“day zero”), the day after or the following day (“day two”).

For a family of four the cost of the necessary tests at either end could add £500 on top of the cost of the holiday. The government says it will “work with the travel industry and private testing providers ahead of international travel reopening to see how we can further reduce the cost of travel”.

For amber, the traveller must self-isolate at home for 10 days and pre-book two post-arrival tests – with the option to take an extra test after five days and leave quarantine.

In time, people who have completed a course of vaccination may be able to avoid the need to quarantine on return from “amber” nations.

The assumption at present is that the current red list – with 11 nights of mandatory hotel quarantine at a cost for a single traveller of £1,750 – will continue.

When do we find out who is on which list?

Early May, perhaps just a week or two before international travel opens.

The vast majority of countries will be either on the amber or red list. Overnight four more nations – the Philippines, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Kenya – have joined the red list, taking the total to 39. Most red countries are in southern and eastern Africa, and in South America, with the key aviation hubs of UAE and Qatar also high-risk.

Many nations in Asia-Pacific are likely to appear on the green list, but that will be academic because it is most unlikely they will welcome British holidaymakers just yet.

Countries that might want us and may be on the green list could include Gibraltar, Israel, Iceland, Malta and the US.

Can the lists change?

Yes, and as vaccination rates increase and infection rates fall, the assumption is that the main path will be from red to amber and from amber to green.

But there will also be a “green watchlist”, which will identify countries on the green list at risk of moving to amber.

This aims to avoid the abrupt changes that characterised last summer – which have become known as the “Shapps Hokey-Cokey” after the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, repeatedly removed and reimposed quarantine on countries and regions at very short notice.

But the government warns it “will not hesitate to act immediately should the data show that countries risk ratings have changed”.

I’ve had both jabs. Will that help me?

Not initially. Vaccination status will not affect your obligation to pay for tests.

What will happen at the airport?

Good question. This week John Holland-Kaye, chief executive of Heathrow airport, said that some waits for UK Border Force exceeded six hours – even with a tiny number of passengers travelling.

The government says it intends “to ensure the UK’s borders remain safe and efficient when passenger flows increase”.

It plans “to digitise the Passenger Locator Form, integrating it into the UK border system and enabling checks to take place at e-gates by autumn 2021”.

This is a bizarre assertion – the PLF is already digital, and the autumn deadline will be too late for the summer rush.

I have a holiday booked in late May/June. What are my rights?

At present you must assume that the trip will go ahead as planned. While travel firms assess their options, the contract you have will still be in force. 

For you to cancel the trip now would be overly hasty – you would certainly be charged a hefty cancellation fee. Only if and when the company announces a cancellation itself are you entitled to a full refund. 

Some companies are offering the chance to reschedule without a penalty.

When will travel return to normal?

Summer of 2022 is likely to be the first time the draconian rules are lifted in the vast majority of popular destinations. Until then, international travel will be messy, stressful and expensive. But we will get there.

In the meantime, it’s a question of how much damage is done to (what used to be) the world’s greatest travel industry in the UK.

It will be smaller, and we will be the poorer for it.

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