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 and is not expected to include EU countries.
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%. Other countries popular with British travellers include Spain at 29.4%, Ireland at 28.3%, France at 26.7%, Italy at 26.4% 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.
Alan French, chief executive of Thomas Cook, said: “[the] Med will be fully green by the time schools break up and we can all enjoy those much-needed weeks in the sun” with bookings already up following announcements from Spain, France and others.
President Macron announced on Thursday that France would open its borders to British travellers on 9 June.
Ryanair and Tui said they are ready to put on extra flights once they get the green light. “As soon as we understand when and where we’re able to travel to, we will adapt our flying programme accordingly. As an example, last summer when Spain was removed from the air corridor list, we increased capacity to Greece in line with customer demand,” said Tui.
Ryanair said it had planes parked at British airports with crews on standby. Many of the airline’s popular routes would reopen in June “with a significant ramp-up of operations in July onwards”.
Industry sources have been told the government plans to review the green, amber and red lists every two weeks instead of one week, as was the case last summer.
One of the barriers to foreign holidays is the additional cost of PCR tests required once before departure and twice after returning to England. Clinics on the government-approved list have been charging £120-£200 a test. For a family, this could lead to crippling costs.
However, prices of PCR tests are coming down, with Shapps, the transport secretary, telling the House of Commons on Thursday that one new entrant will be offering them for £45.
The Department for Transport on Friday said it did not endorse any private test provider but to its knowledge Eurofins currently had the cheapest standard PCR test at £44.90.
Ryanair this week announced it had teamed up with Randox Health to provide £60 test kits. Another company, Expresstest, which has been providing tests in the elite sporting sector, has opened a series of drive-through sites in Heathrow, Gatwick, Croydon and other sites, expected to include London’s Paddington station, with tests on offer for £60.
Downing Street said it had “committed to giving at least one week’s notice to the public to confirm whether or not the changes can happen on 17 May”.