Ministers in England are preparing to decide which countries should have tougher quarantine requirements imposed for travellers returning home from them, amid criticism the system has been thrown into “chaos”.
Senior members of the cabinet will meet to mull over the latest case, vaccine and variant rates in territories across the world and are expected to make an announcement about changes to the red, amber and green lists later on this week.
However, Labour have upped calls for the amber list to be scrapped. A shadow cabinet minister accused the government of creating too much confusion for passengers, following the revelation a mooted sixth tier known as the “amber watchlist” had been killed off due to a cabinet revolt, fury from backbench Tory MPs and resistance from the aviation industry.
The Guardian understands the Foreign Office was broadly in favour of the idea, with transport secretary Grant Shapps also reportedly on board – though his allies swiftly briefed otherwise.
In the penultimate review of the traffic light system before summer ends, likely to be watched keenly by those planning a trip away during August, sources said France was likely to be removed from the “amber plus” list – the only country in this category, which would mean fully-vaccinated travellers could avoid up to 10 days’ quarantine.
Concern about the prevalence of the Beta variant in France has abated, with the country’s ambassador to the UK, Catherine Colonna, pointing out it “keeps declining” and now accounts for just 0.8% of infections.
Spain is most at risk of going on the amber plus list due to the Beta variant. In mid-July it had one of the highest rates of any country in the world for sequenced cases found to be Beta, so there have been fears about the popular destination’s status changing for several weeks.
Tensions around the table will be fraught when ministers meet this week, given the furious briefing war that imploded over the now-defunct amber watchlist.
It was designed to give travellers’ notice a country was at risk of being moved to the red list, though government insiders privately admitted it would have been near-impossible to put some countries on the red list given the impact this would have on supply chains and the limited availability of hotel quarantine rooms available.
So they confessed that the amber watchlist would have acted as more of a deterrent to encourage people not to travel to and from them, without actually imposing any tougher restrictions.
Despite the idea having been killed off, Labour have upped calls for the entire amber list to be scrapped.
Wes Streeting, the shadow child poverty secretary, said there was too much “chaos and confusion”. He called on Johnson to instead adopt a “much simpler list system” – consisting of just a red and green list – “so people can make decisions with certainty.”
Travel expert Paul Charles, director of the PC Agency consultancy, said he expected further changes to the rules, claiming “high level” sources had told him the “amber plus” and “green watchlist” categories would also be dropped. “There needs to be more simplicity and a reduced testing regime,” he said.
Given health restrictions are a devolved matter, it will be up to the administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to decide whether to follow suit – though they do often maintain a uniform approach.