The government has finally said Brits will be able to book holidays abroad this summer – as a green list of countries is unveiled within three weeks.
Foreign travel will definitely be allowed to resume, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps confirmed as he published a review on trips abroad.
A “traffic light” system will divide nations into red, amber and green lists allowing different levels of travel, with testing and quarantine.
There will also be a fourth category, a green “watchlist”, to alert travellers to countries that are at highest risk of moving from green to amber.
There is now “light at the end of the tunnel”, Mr Shapps declared.
But there are a string of uncertainties that could add cost and paperwork for families hoping for a taste of sun.
Firstly, families are still in limbo as officials say it is too early to say which countries will be on which lists.
Secondly, there is still no start date for foreign holidays – as Mr Shapps said they might begin from May 17, but the date might also be later.
The top Tory suggested today holidays would only “primarily” open up for the summer season, July and August, rather than May and June.
Thirdly, families visiting countries in all three categories will have to take gold-standard PCR tests costing around £120 each.
Officials are looking at ways to make PCR tests cheaper or potentially use less reliable lateral flow tests – but none of this is confirmed.
And lastly, even once the green, amber and red lists are published, there will be nothing to stop countries switching lists at short notice.
Despite all the uncertainties, Mr Shapps today revealed the first green, amber and red lists will be published within two to three weeks.
That could trigger an avalanche of bookings from pent-up Brits to go abroad for holidays and to see long-separated loved ones.
The Transport Secretary told Sky News: “I’m not saying to people they shouldn’t book summer holidays, that’s the first time I’ve been able to say that for many months.
“But I think everybody doing it understands there are risks with coronavirus and of course actually I think people would want to be clear about which countries are going to be in the different traffic light system.
“And people predominantly of course will be looking to book in a green country.
“There’s only two to three weeks to wait before we publish that list.
“But yes, tentative progress, for the first time people can start to think about visiting loved ones abroad, or perhaps a summer holiday, but we’re doing it very, very cautiously because we don’t want to see any return of coronavirus in this country.”
Mr Shapps – who was caught by his own travel corridor system last year – said he will hold off on booking his own break until the green, amber and red lists are published.
Experts will allocate nations to green, amber or red categories depending on countries’ vaccination rates, infection levels and whether mutant strains – dubbed “variants of concern” – are rife.
A country’s status will also depend on a fourth factor – how much sequencing it is doing as standard to identify any mutant strains.
Passengers landing from green nations will need to take a pre-departure test before flying back, as well as a PCR test on or before day two of their arrival in the UK.
But they will not need to quarantine, unless they receive a positive result, or take any additional tests.
Those returning from amber countries must self-isolate 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 five to end quarantine early.
Brits returning from red countries must pay £1,750 to quarantine for 10 days in a Government-approved hotel, undergo pre-departure testing and PCR testing on day two and eight – as they do now.
Ministers are desperate not to jeopardise the success of the Covid-19 inoculation rollout by importing vaccine-resistant mutations from abroad.
But figures yesterday revealed that for every arrival staying in a quarantine hotel since mid-February, 36 other travellers had been told they could just quarantine at home.
And there are widespread concerns about the number of positive cases that are missed by cheaper “lateral flow” tests, which Mr Shapps indicated the government was looking at to cut travellers’ costs.
Prof Jeremy Brown, a member of the joint committee on vaccines and immunisation (JCVI), warned it was vital not to import new strains of Covid-19.
He told Times Radio: “The problem there is that it’s a bit unclear at this point in time.
“I think knowing how effective the vaccine is against these variants is actually quite a crucial bit of information because if we know it’s effective, then the issue about travel and potentially bringing back variants from other countries becomes less of a problem.
“If the variants escape the vaccine then it can be a significant problem.
“I’m afraid to say, at the moment, I don’t know enough about our immunity to variants and I don’t think many people do.”
Officials are eyeing countries like Israel and the US as places where Brits could travel without having to quarantine on their return.
But sources said it was “not near enough” to May 17 yet to decide which nations will be on the green, amber and red lists.
Restrictions will be reviewed on June 28 to see if the travel traffic light system as a whole can be relaxed.
More reviews will take place no later than July 31 and October 1.
Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said the Government has not given enough detail about its traffic light travel system for it to be properly scrutinised by MPs.
Speaking on BBC Breakfast, he said: “The problem that I have is that the system hasn’t been outlined in detail.
“The Government has spoken about factors like vaccination rates, infection rates, the position with variants and also about the level of genomic sequencing – but I have no idea what the levels of each of those are, for the Government to place countries into the green category, amber or red.
“And instead what we’ve had this week, once again, is this system being drip-fed into the media day by day.
“We then have it announced on a day when Parliament isn’t sitting, so we can’t go to the Commons and ask either the Home Secretary or the Transport Secretary to set out the details of this. That’s extremely frustrating.”
Mr Thomas-Symonds added that since the Government introduced “a very limited form of hotel quarantine” on February 15, 150,000 people “have entered the country who are totally unaccounted for” according to “reports in the media”.