The government has confirmed it will formalise the “traffic light” system for international travel, which classifies countries in terms of the degree of risk they pose.
Ministers say that arrivals from nations in the red and amber categories must quarantine, in hotels and at home respectively.
People arriving in the UK from green-list countries will escape the need for self-isolation, though they will need to take a Covid test before departing for the UK and another after arrival.
These are the key questions and answers.
Don’t we have a traffic-light system at the moment?
Yes. The red list, covering 39 countries, requires 11 nights of hotel quarantine. For the amber category, covering almost everywhere else, it’s 10 days of self-isolation at home (though with the chance of early release in England if you pay for another test after five days).
The only country currently on green, with effectively no restrictions, is Ireland.
What are the government’s criteria?
These include the status of a country’s vaccination programme, infection rates, the prevalence of variants of concern, and access to genomic sequencing (enabling variants of concern to be identified). The main worry is that variants of concern could be imported and ultimately undermine the UK’s vaccination programme.
To be on the green list, a nation will need to have a competent vaccination programme, with a significant proportion of the public jabbed as well as a high take-up rate; infection rates low, or at least steadily and sustainably declining; and an insignificant prevalence of variants of concern.
So which countries does the government say are green?
“It is too early to say which countries will be on the green list when non-essential international travel resumes. These decisions will be driven by the data and evidence nearer the time, which we cannot predict now.
“In advance of the resumption of non-essential international travel, we will set out our initial assessment of which countries will fall into [each] category.
“Thereafter, countries will move between the red, amber and green lists depending on the data.”
The decision will be made in early May, ahead of the restart on 17 May.
What does the travel industry think about the traffic-light system?
Airlines and holiday companies have been calling for risk-based rules for a year, and so are generally happy about the concept.
“While it is imperative we avoid the ‘stop-start’ scenario we had last summer, the system itself sounds sensible,” says Sophie Griffiths, editor of the trade journal TTG.
“Travel agents and their customers will be able to easily identify which destinations are safe to book and travel to, and most importantly, it will enable customers – and agents – to plan.
“What we need next week, though, is a list of which destinations will be labelled red, green and amber to ensure that this is the case, because time to plan is what this industry urgently needs.”
Which countries do they think should be on the green list?
The Independent asked the chief executives of three of the UK’s most important aviation enterprises for their views.
Shai Weiss of Virgin Atlantic said: “I’ll go for the most obvious ones. The US should be [on the list].
“Given the significance to the economy, given the advancements, given that they’re vaccinating over 3 million people per day, it’s hard to see why the US would not be on it.
“Israel is the world’s leading country [in terms of vaccinations]. And I think for leisure customers looking for some sun, the Caribbean [islands] have done an awesome job throughout the pandemic of keeping things under control.”
Sean Doyle of British Airways said: “We’ve got to look forward to beyond 17 May and figure out what state we’re in by then.
“I think all the indicators will be in a much better place by then than you would be if you cut the list today.
“Vaccination programmes are increasing in terms of scale, and we know that Europe will have a significant increase in vaccinations over the course of the second quarter [April-June 2021].
“So you would hope to see other countries added to the list, in line with the progress we’ve seen in the UK and the US.
“I think green will become quite expansive as we get into the summer, based on the progress that we’ve seen in the countries to which Shai has referred.”
John Holland-Kaye, chief executive of Heathrow airport, said: “We’re primarily focused on people who need to reconnect with their family and [travel for] business. But a lot of people will want to know about their summer holidays. And that is still several months away.
“I think by the time we get to the middle of July there will be a lot more countries that have got to the right place.
“There’s one other country we should add to the list: the UAE, where they have very high levels of vaccination.
“There are plenty of long-haul countries which have low Covid levels and high vaccination levels.”
Examples include many Asia Pacific countries – such as Australia, New Zealand and Singapore – which should surely be on the green list, though this would be academic since they are not opening for British visitors any time soon.
EasyJet CEO Johan Lundgren told The Independent on 14 April: “By the time we get to 17 May and the rollout of the vaccination programme that seems to be picking up everywhere we look around Europe, I would struggle to see that there would be – unless something happened between now and then – that there would be many countries who wouldn’t be in that green category.”
Iceland and Gibraltar look in good shape, as does Bahrain. Among mainstream European holiday destinations – which are what most travellers are interested in – Portugal is the star performer, with rates that are low and falling.
Malta has high rates but they are falling extremely fast as a big vaccination programme rolls out.
Greece was progressing well towards the sunny green uplands, but has recently had a blip and now has infection rates three times higher than the UK. Cyprus has seen rates rise modestly in the past fortnight.
Italy is falling slowly, but Croatia is rising fast.
Turkey has had such a bad two weeks – with rates doubling – that there are concerns about a statistical blip.
France is getting in a terrible mess, with a 43 per cent increase in cases over the past fortnight from an already-high base.
The Czech Republic and Montenegro, despite both being in the top six European countries for new infections, are seeing rates fall very fast.
If their vaccination programmes accelerate, they may be in with a chance.
What about those pesky tests?
Pre-departure and post-arrival tests will be needed, the government says. You won’t be able to get onto a plane to the UK until you have 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.
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 travel industry is worried that this could prove costly, as well as inconvenient.
Julia Lo Bue-Said, chief executive of Advantage Travel Partnerships, said: “Aligning travel to ‘green’ countries under the government’s proposed traffic light system will require affordable, easily accessible testing.”
John Holland-Kaye of Heathrow airport said: “The main concern is the cost of all of this – both the pre-departure test and the post-arrival test – which, as I understand it, needs to be a PCR test.
“This could become prohibitively expensive for a lot of people who just want to be able to go about their normal business.
“We need to make sure that this doesn’t just become something that only wealthy people can afford to do; that it’s much more democratic and accessible than that.”
Challenged on the cost of the tests, the prime minister said: “We’re going to see what we can do to make things as flexible and as affordable as possible.”
Simon is hosting a free event on 28 April, where he’ll untangle the latest news in the world of travel and let you know when, where and how you can go on holiday this summer. You can book a ticket by signing up to his weekly newsletter here: https://www.independent.co.uk/newsletters