Holidaymakers and airlines could get as little as one week’s notice of the rules to allow overseas travel from England this month, as government sources insisted they would err on the side of caution when easing restrictions.
Ministers are likely to announce on Friday that the ban on non-essential foreign travel will be lifted from 17 May, but it may not release the “traffic light” list of countries to which travel will be permitted until 10 May.
Bookings soared last week as anticipation over the prospect of a foreign holiday grew. Dame Irene Hays, chair of Hays Travel, which bought the Thomas Cook high street shops out of administration, said they had had their busiest day since the pandemic began this week.
She said: “People are spending more than they usually do, booking better destinations and accommodation and they are getting in quick before demand increases further and to avoid price rises nearer the departure date.”
A Covid international travel committee of cabinet ministers, including Michael Gove, Matt Hancock and Grant Shapps, met on Thursday to discuss next steps. They decided it was important to finalise the list of countries on the green, amber and red lists as late as possible to make use of the latest data but also give consumers certainty once the countries are announced.
Sources say the initial green list of countries, which require no quarantine on return, has not yet been determined but is expected to be short. Analysts say it may only include a handful of EU countries including Finland, Portugal, Malta, Iceland.
The Covid travel committee is using four criteria to assess a country’s risk under the traffic light system: the prevalence of variants of concern; the country’s access to reliable scientific data and genomic sequencing; the rate of infection and the percentage of their population vaccinated.
Sources played down reports that a 40% inoculation rate would be the benchmark as unfamiliar. But according to the latest EU vaccine tracker, Finland comes closest to this at 34.6% having had one dose. Other countries popular with British travellers include Spain at 29.4%, Ireland at 28.3%, France at 26.7%, Italy at 26.4%, Portugal at 25.9% and Greece at 23.6% vaccination rates.
Holidaymakers will still be allowed to travel to countries on the amber list but will have to quarantine at home for 10 days and take PCR tests on day 2 and day 8 from return.