As ministers meet to decide on changes to the “traffic light” system for arriving travellers, airlines, holiday companies, travel agents and trades unions are demanding that the government expand the “green list” of quarantine-free destinations – and reveal the data on which decisions are based.
They also want news on much-leaked plans for allowing fully vaccinated travellers to avoid quarantine. These are the key question and answers.
Just remind me what is happening?
In the second of the three-weekly reviews of the traffic light system of risk management, ministers are decide whether any countries should be shuffled between the “red list” (requiring hotel quarantine), “amber list” (self-isolation) and the quarantine-free green list.
At present, 50 countries including India, the UAE, Turkey, Egypt, South Africa and all of South America, are on the red list. The only viable destinations currently on the green list are Gibraltar and Iceland.
The amber list contains almost all the UK’s favourite destinations, including Spain, France, Portugal, Italy, Croatia, Greece and the US.
The first traffic light review, on 3 June, was comprehensively leaked before the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, announced Portugal would be moved abruptly from green to amber – triggering an exodus of holidaymakers from the only mainstream holiday destination on the quarantine-free list.
The transport secretary may also make an announcement about when fully vaccinated arrivals from amber list countries might be able to avoid quarantine, and on the testing regime from green list nations.
Who decides – and what criteria are used?
A destination can make the green list if coronavirus infection rates, “variants of concern” and numbers of connecting international passengers are low, while vaccine roll-out, reliability of data and genomic sequencing capability are high.
The Joint Biosecurity Centre makes recommendations, and decisions on country categories are made by ministers including Grant Shapps and the health secretary, Matt Hancock.
But there appears to be more to the decisions than the data: there is no apparent reason why Malta should not be on the green list.
Despite a minister claiming to the contrary, the Mediterranean nation has a better vaccination record than the UK, as well as low rates and negligible variants of concern.
The travel industry is calling for transparency on the data behind the decisions. Brian Strutton, general secretary of the British Airline Pilots’ Association (Balpa), accused the government of “making political decisions on the hoof.”
He said: “Nobody knows why countries are classified as green, amber, red. There’s been no publication of the data that goes alongside that.
“How can an industry run if it doesn’t know what’s happening? We’ve said to the government, be open and transparent.”
A Department for Transport (DfT) spokesperson said: “Our international travel policy is guided by one overwhelming priority – public health.”
Who’s for the green list?
According to Mr Strutton of the pilots’ union, a wide range of destinations: Malta, the Balearic and Canary Islands of Spain; some of the Greek islands; the US and some Caribbean islands.
“I am expecting expansion of the green list. In fact, there’s got to be. We’re nearly at the point of no return for travel this summer. If we don’t start getting some proper destination flying very, very soon, then we’re going to have bankruptcies and business failures.
“I’m hearing suggestions like, ‘Maybe in August’. Well, that isn’t going to be good enough. We need flying now.”
Analysts concur that Malta is a clear favourite. Paul Charles, chief executive of travel consultancy The PC Agency, adds that Madeira should be reinstated to green; along with the rest of Portugal, it was moved from green to amber three weeks ago.
He says he is expecting no more than five countries to be added, even though the data says more should be eligible.
Among Greek islands, Corfu, Kefalonia, Lesbos, Santorini and Zakynthos (Zante) are looking promising according to the analyst Tim White.
Cuba, which has the best health system in Latin America, is another possibility.
Robert Boyle of Gridpoint Consulting – formerly strategy director for BA’s parent company IAG – cautions: “There were several countries that ought to have been added at the last review based on their case rates, and none were.
“So whether the traffic lights will remain stuck on amber/red at the next review is anyone’s guess at this point.”
What about moves to or from the red list?
Robert Boyle says: “I suspect Malaysia might get added to the red list, as it was one of the few amber list countries where the recent arrival testing figures showed high levels of positive tests (8.3 per cent) and it has a high reported case rate. It is already on Germany’s list of countries flagged as a ‘High Incidence Area’.”
Writing in his blog, he speculates that one of the UK’s favourite countries might move in the opposite direction: “There’s a possibility that Turkey might get moved from red to amber, since cases have come well down.”
Many people are hoping that Qatar and the UAE will be moved from red to amber. But the initial reason for their high risk rating, that they have global aviation hubs, has not changed.
Some British expatriates are eyeing Malta as an ideal place to “launder” their red list status. If the Mediterranean nation goes green, it will provide an appealing and inexpensive location in which to spend 10 full days and eliminate the need to stay in a quarantine hotel.
What might happen in terms of vaccination as an alternative to quarantine?
At some point the UK government will surely adopt the “quarantine or vaccination” model which the travel industry has demanded, and which some other countries have used for months. The question is when.
At the Downing Street news conference on Wednesday, the vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi, said: “We will continue to work with other countries, with the travel taskforce, to see how we can build on all this really good progress, on the vaccination progress, so that we can have the use of the double vaccination – with testing – open up more of the economy.”
“We are looking at all of that at the moment to see how we can open up more of our economy and of course make sure that we work with other countries to facilitate travel globally, because we need to get the travel industry back on its feet.”
But Mr Zahawi added: “No one is safe until we are all safe.”
Travel agents do not feel safe. Jill Waite, director of Pole Travel in Manchester, said: “Consumer confidence is at an all-time low. Even if we do get some more countries on the green list, it’s not going to see companies through now.
“We’ve lost a lot of summer revenue, which normally sees us through the winter. So we’re all going to struggle now until next March at least.”
Any other moves?
The government has a “checkpoint” for reviewing the working of the whole traffic light system – as opposed to which country goes in which category – on Monday 28 June. So it may be that further announcements are delayed until then.
Paul Charles is expecting an imminent decision that fully jabbed UK citizens returning from amber nations should avoid quarantine. It is unclear whether vaccinated foreign travellers would enjoy the same privilege.
In addition, the current requirement for people coming in from low-risk destinations to take a post-arrival PCR test is likely to be dropped – not least because were people to be returning from abroad in any numbers, the current testing system will be unable to cope with demand.
When would such changes be introduced?
That is the crucial question. The travel industry wants them as soon as possible, ideally on 19 July when domestic restrictions in England are eased. But some sources suggest nothing will happen until August.
Mark Tanzer, chief executive of Abta, the travel association, says: “We’d really like to see an announcement that if you’ve been double-vaccinated you don’t need to quarantine. That would be a great boost for confidence for now and for later in the summer. That would get cash coming in to businesses.”
The soaring number of coronavirus cases in the UK may cause ministers to be timid. But according to Robert Boyle, continuing to prevent British people from going abroad could be counter-productive.
“I believe that the short-term risk to UK case numbers from millions of UK holidaymakers cramming onto crowded UK beaches might be a lot higher than if they are allowed to jet off overseas,” he says.
What about the attitude of overseas countries?
Many destinations are alarmed at the British surge in cases and the prevalence of the Delta variant. Nations such as Germany, the Netherlands and Italy insist upon quarantine for arrivals from the UK.
But as tourism-dependent countries seek to balance public health and national wealth, British holidaymakers are likely to be warmly welcomed around the Mediterranean this summer.