Ministers have given the green light for holidays abroad as early as 17 May, but ignored industry pleas to make trips affordable by cutting the cost of Covid tests for travellers.
Plans drawn up by a taskforce under transport secretary Grant Shapps will use a traffic light system to divide destinations into green, amber and red zones based on infection risk, with even arrivals from the safest countries required to take a test before departure and a PCR test after arrival, at a cost of as much as £200.
The move means that travel is likely to be affordable initially only to the well-heeled or to those with pressing needs to go abroad, such as for family reunion.
Details of the countries on each of the lists will not be revealed until early May, with industry eyes focused on whether the US, France and Spain will win the coveted green status.
Boris Johnson this week raised industry hopes that the testing requirement would be downgraded to the far cheaper rapid-turnaround lateral flow test for arrivals from green countries, saying he wanted to “make things as flexible and as affordable as possible”.
But Mr Shapps today made clear that a cheaper system – potentially including state-provided pre-departure tests and the use of lateral flow kits on return – will not be introduced until after further consultation with the industry and private testing providers.
Under the recommendations of Mr Shapps’s Global Travel Taskforce, a “green watchlist” will be established to warn holidaymakers of any countries in the low-risk category which are in danger of slipping into the higher amber or red status.
Restrictions will be formally reviewed on 28 June to take account of the developing domestic and international health picture, and again no later than 31 July and 1 October.
Key factors in the traffic-light assessment will include the percentage of a country’s population that has been vaccinated, the rate of infection, the prevalence of variants of concern and the country’s access to reliable scientific data and genomic sequencing.
The 17 May date for reopening international travel as part of step three of Mr Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown is expected to be confirmed early next month, provided the PM’s four tests for safe easing of rules are met.
Passengers will no longer have to prove they have a valid reason to leave the country, such as for work purposes.
Under the traffic-light scheme, travellers arriving from a green list country will need to take a pre-departure test as well as a PCR test on or before the second day of their arrival back in the UK, but will not need to quarantine.
From an amber country, arrivals must quarantine for 10 days and take a pre-departure test, a PCR test on day two and day eight, with the option for Test to Release on day 5 to end self-isolation early.
Those coming into the UK from a red-list country will be subject to restrictions currently in place, including an 11-night stay in a managed quarantine hotel, pre-departure testing and PCR testing on days two and eight.
Mr Shapps said: “International travel is vital – it boosts businesses and underpins the UK economy – but more than that, it brings people together, connects families who have been kept apart, and allows us to explore new horizons.
“The framework announced today will help allow us to reopen travel safely and sustainably, ensure we protect our hard-won achievements on the vaccine roll out and offer peace of mind to both passengers and industry as we begin to take trips abroad once again.”
Mr Shapps said the UK will also play a leading role in the development of international standards around a digital travel certification system.
A “Covid-19 charter” will also be introduced from the 17 May, setting out what is required of passengers and what their rights are while measures remain in place.