With the start of the main July and August holiday season just four days away, the government has changed tack on easing its “no-holiday” policy.
Relaxation of the UK’s quarantine rules and travel advice will not now come until the week after next, Downing Street signalled, as it announced a new traffic-light system that will open up routes to popular destinations like France and Spain.
Critics of the blanket quarantine policy have accused the government of a U-turn and are asking why a targeted approach was not used from the start.
Current government measures are preventing all but a handful of holidaymakers going abroad. For the past 100 days, the Foreign Office has advised against all but essential travel anywhere abroad, which mean travel firms cannot send package holidaymaker overseas. Any traveller ignoring the warning is likely to find their insurance is void.
The quarantine rules brought in on 8 June mean they will face two weeks of mandatory self-isolation on their return to the UK – just as incoming tourists and business travellers do. The measures have already triggered the cancellation of millions of trips and stifled new outbound and inbound bookings.
A spokesperson for British Airways’ parent company, IAG, said: “The impact on the aviation industry and jobs is devastating. Europe is opening up and the UK will be left behind.”
The government has moved away from talk of “air bridge” deals with individual countries. Instead, the Joint Biosecurity Centre – which was set up to coordinate the government’s response to the pandemic – is categorising countries with a “traffic light” system.
Each country is rated green, amber or red, depending on the prevalence of coronavirus, the trajectory of disease and the centre’s assessment of the data’s reliability. Quarantine will apply only to nations rated red.
Dozens of countries, particularly in Europe, will expect to be rated green or amber, with quarantine reserved for locations with records similar to, or worse than, the UK.
The government has already signalled that travellers from France, Spain and Greece will be exempt.
A senior source said the change “will allow those who need to travel for work to do so without the need to self-isolate on their return”.
The mention of “work” indicates that a wide range of business destinations, such as Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland, are likely to be quarantine-free.
All inbound travellers will still be required to complete a passenger locator form in order to enter the UK, so they can be traced if necessary.
A government spokesperson said: “Our public health measures at the border were put in place to manage the risk of imported cases and help prevent a second wave of the virus, and will continue to support our fight against coronavirus.
“Our new risk-assessment system will enable us to carefully open a number of safe travel routes around the world – giving people the opportunity for a summer holiday abroad and boosting the UK economy through tourism and business.
“But we will not hesitate to put on the brakes if any risks re-emerge, and this system will enable us to take swift action to re-introduce self-isolation measures if new outbreaks occur overseas.”
Separately, a senior Foreign Office source confirmed that the blanket no-go ban will be eased “in countries and territories where the public health risk is no longer unacceptably high”.
The source said: “Implementation of the exemptions will be set out next week, likely beginning on 6 July.”
It is presumed that on the same date, the quarantine rules will be lifted for travellers from “safe” countries.
The quarantine policy must be reviewed on Monday, 29 June. On Wednesday the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, indicated to MPs that a list of countries from which travellers may avoid quarantine would be published on that day.
It was understood that the Foreign Office would lift its blanket no-go advice at the same time.
But the government is now thought likely to delay an announcement until Wednesday, 1 July, with the eased restrictions taking effect from the following week.
The news that certainty about summer plans could be delayed still further has infuriated senior figures in Britain’s travel industry, which is severely weakened because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are beyond frustrated,” said a senior executive from a giant travel firm. “We want to take people on holiday and the government won’t let us.”
A spokesperson for Abta, the travel association, said: “The travel sector remains in a perilous state, with redundancies announced each week.
“We need a more comprehensive roadmap as soon as possible that includes time frames for relaxing international travel restrictions too so businesses and customers can plan ahead.
“The process of sending people on holiday is not like turning on a tap; as much advance notice as possible from the government is required for travel companies to restart operations.”
Paul Charles, spokesperson for the Quash Quarantine group, said: “The government has continued to ensure the travel sector is flying through fog.
“There is no visibility over when the industry can take bookings without any risk attached. Consumers are unable to book with confidence.”
Most European Union countries will lift restrictions on incoming tourists from elsewhere in Europe on 1 July.