Holiday plans thrown into chaos by Covid variants

Summer holiday

Plans for foreign holidays were in chaos last night after the health secretary warned against visiting countries on the “amber list” despite lifting a ban on leisure travel outside the UK.

Matt Hancock said people should “certainly not” go on holiday to nations such as Spain, Italy, France and Greece because of the risk posed by mutant strains of the coronavirus.

The comments were made as Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University and a member of the government’s vaccine task force, also warned against continental breaks, insisting that swathes of Europe were “largely unvaccinated”.

The legal ban on overseas holidays is lifted today as part of the next stage of the government’s road map out of lockdown. Mixing indoors, eating and drinking inside pubs and restaurants and hugging people from other households will also be possible from today.

Boris Johnson said Britain must proceed with a “heavy dose of caution” because of fears over the Indian strain of the coronavirus. Figures show cases of the variant have more than doubled to 1,313 in the past week in England.

Overall, four deaths within 28 days of a positive test for Covid-19 were reported yesterday. In the past week 15,918 cases were confirmed, a rise of 8.6 per cent compared with the previous seven days. The number in hospital with Covid-19 fell below 1,000 for the first time since September, to 991.

The prime minister has warned that the ending of all restrictions, which was due on June 21 in England, could be delayed because of the risk from the Indian variant. A decision will be taken by June 14. Johnson said: “I urge everyone to be cautious and take responsibility when enjoying new freedoms today.”

The easing of travel restrictions was predicted to trigger a stampede for foreign travel, with airports anticipating their busiest day of the year.

Manchester said it was expecting to handle 91 flights today, almost two thirds more than Monday last week.

The government’s traffic light system for foreign travel, which comes into force from today, rates countries as green, amber or red based on the risk of importing coronavirus into the UK.

Travel without the requirement to quarantine on return will be possible to only 12 “green” destinations including Portugal, Gibraltar and Israel. Forty-three countries are on the red list — forcing any travelling Britons to quarantine in a hotel for ten days at a cost of £1,750 when they get back.

Every other country in the world is on the amber list, including most of Europe. People returning from these countries have to quarantine at home for ten days, although this can be reduced with a negative test.

Tour operators including Tui, easyJet Holidays and British Airways Holidays are already advertising trips to amber destinations such as the Caribbean, Malta and Greece.

An analysis of Britain’s five busiest airports — Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Manchester and Luton — shows that 124 flights will be operated to amber countries today alone. This includes 23 to Spain.

The government has already said people should “not be travelling to amber or red countries”. However, speaking on Times Radio yesterday, Hancock appeared to voice even stronger warnings, saying that holidays in amber countries should not take place at all.

“People should not travel to amber or red list countries unless it’s absolutely necessary, and certainly not for holiday purposes,” he said.

He said the green list had been drawn up to “provide for a safe way” to travel, adding: “The red and amber list countries are places that you shouldn’t go to unless you have an absolutely compelling reason.”

Professor Bell, Britain’s leading immunologist, reiterated the warnings, telling the BBC: “I don’t think anybody’s going on a holiday, except in the UK, because I think there will be pretty substantial border controls . . . There are very broad swathes of Europe that are largely unvaccinated. So they’re pretty vulnerable to new variants . . . sweeping across the continent and leaving very, very high levels of disease.”

The comments were criticised by the airline industry. Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, said: “The regulations do not say it is illegal to travel to amber so the government should not be suggesting or intimating it is. That just leads to confusion.”

There was also confusion over the rules on hugging people. Sir Mark Walport, a member of the government’s scientific advisory group for emergencies, told Sophy Ridge on Sky News that people should avoid “tight clinches” and “hug cautiously”.