Ministers will on Thursday hammer out a framework for reopening Britain’s overseas travel sector, as chancellor Rishi Sunak insisted the country was “in a good position to recover strongly” from the Covid-19 crisis.
Travel industry and Whitehall officials expect Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, will back a “traffic light” approach to restarting foreign travel, depending on infection rates and the prevalence of Covid-19 variants in overseas destinations.
May 17 has been named as the “earliest date” for foreign travel; aviation sector executives hope Israel and Iceland will be among early holiday destinations on a “green list”, with the US not far behind.
Ministers are also expected to approve plans for Covid-19 certification to show the status of individuals, based on the existing NHS app, for possible use for entry to business premises and foreign travel.
One Whitehall official said: “The NHS already has people’s health data, so using its app would be the fastest and easiest route.” A trial of a Covid-19 “passport” system is expected later in the spring.
The official said the app would contain information on three things; a person’s vaccination record, test results and immunity — whether they had previously had Covid-19.
Johnson is expected to meet key ministers on Thursday to finalise an Easter Monday statement on the next stage of lockdown easing in England.
Sir Patrick Vallance, chief scientific adviser, this week said that “so far everything is heading in the right direction” for further lifting restrictions on April 12.
That means non-essential retail will reopen on schedule along with pubs and restaurants serving customers outside; indoor pools and gyms will also be able to reopen.
Johnson will also give an “update” on April 5 on foreign travel and an exercise led by Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister, on Covid-19 certification.
However, this will be a statement on the “framework” for restarting foreign travel and using Covid-19 passports, government officials said, rather than a specific timetable with dates attached on when they would take effect.
The precise operation of the traffic light system has yet to be agreed although ministers have emphasised on calls to industry executives that testing will be the key.
Johnson has urged caution and said on March 23 that “things certainly look difficult for the time being” because of the third wave of Covid-19 gripping parts of Europe.
Meanwhile, Sunak, who is launching a “super deductor” regime of tax breaks for business investment which starts on Thursday, said the scheme would “turbocharge our recovery”.
He told ITV News that the vaccine rollout was “proceeding very well”, adding: “I’m confident we’re in a very good position to recover strongly.”
Sunak did not deny that he opposed a national “circuit breaker” lockdown last September — in spite of concerns among some scientists about an uptick of cases — but he said: “Remember what my job is.”
He said it was his duty to set out the economic consequences of restrictions and that not all scientists backed a national lockdown because “there were very different caseloads in different parts of the country”.
But he added: “All these decisions, ultimately, are ones the prime minister makes. They’re impossibly hard decisions to make.”
Labour’s shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds said: “He rejected scientific advice on the need for a circuit breaker to control the virus and save lives — and he’s trying to pin the blame on the prime minister.”