Travellers from England could take overseas holidays from May 17 to a small number of countries but will have to pay about £100 on their return for a Covid-19 test.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps will on Friday confirm plans in England for a “traffic light system” for foreign travel, but each option will involve PCR tests upon return to try to track new variants of the virus entering the country.
Unlike the quicker lateral flow tests which detect a protein antigen on the virus’s surface, the more accurate and expensive PCR tests look for Covid-19’s genetic material.
Under the government’s plans May 17 remains the earliest possible date for foreign holidays to resume. Officials hope that a small number of destinations will be opened up to tourists from England from that date.
Destinations will be assessed particularly on their level of vaccinations and the prevalence of new Covid-19 variants. The US, Israel, Dubai, Gibraltar and Malta could be among the first countries to be on a green list of approved countries for travel.
Countries will be graded green, amber and red in “early May” in order to give the travel industry time to prepare for a possible resumption of holidays from May 17.
For green list countries travellers will have to take a lateral flow test before returning to the UK; they could take free kits with them from Britain as part of the government’s plan for mass testing.
But they will be required to take a PCR test two days after returning from a green list country; the more sophisticated test can cost about £100 and helps to detect new variants.
Travellers to amber list countries will require home isolation for 10 days and PCR tests on day two and day eight after return, with the option of a “test to release” after five days.
Those returning from red list countries will have to quarantine in hotels and take PCR tests on days two and eight. They will remain off-limits for foreign travel, as now.
Ministers will work with PCR test providers to try to reduce the cost of family holidays; prime minister Boris Johnson said this week he shared concerns that testing could make holidays unaffordable for some families.
According to the consumer website Which, the average cost of a PCR test in the UK is £120 with prices reaching as much as £214 in some central London clinics.
The airline industry has warned that any approach involving PCR tests is likely to price many travellers out of the market, and has pushed for frictionless, test-free travel to green countries.
“Anything with a PCR test is a problem for us because of the cost,” one aviation executive said.
Shai Weiss, chief executive of Virgin Atlantic, said ministers needed to be bolder in their approach to reopening borders.
“I just fear that the government is taking a very, very cautious approach. And they’re trying to appease everyone to the point where it actually doesn’t mean much. It’s not really international travel. It’s not really closed borders,” he told the Financial Times.
The government will also introduce an early warning system to give travellers greater notice of when a country is liable to shift colour in the traffic light scheme, following chaotic scenes last year as people struggled to get home to beat quarantine requirements.
Despite Johnson indicating that vaccine certificates could be used to open up international travel, no system has yet been devised. Travel executives fear mass travel will be impossible without digitising the current system in which passengers need to show paper proof of a negative Covid-19 test, plus a passenger locator form upon arrival.
Travel industry executives also expressed anger that there would not be more notice of which countries would be listed as safe to travel to from May 17 given the long lead times for booking holidays.
“The travel sector can’t afford to wait another month for countries to be colour coded as it has to plan much further in advance for a reopening. The government needs to outline more quickly which countries will be in which colour category in order for consumers to spend with confidence,” said Paul Charles, an adviser to several major travel companies.