Hopes of a summer holiday in Europe were boosted yesterday with the possibility of non-essential travel to destinations such as Portugal and Malta as soon as mid-May.
It is likely that limited overseas trips will be permitted in just over two weeks’ time, with experts saying that an initial “green list” is likely to include up to 24 countries.
Meanwhile, France announced that Britons will be able to travel there from the start of June provided they have proof of being vaccinated.
Further good news for tourists came as it was revealed that the cost of coronavirus tests for holidaymakers has dropped to as little as £45 each under government plans to force down prices.
Across England coronavirus cases have fallen to record lows, with every region in the country reporting reductions in the infection rate. Experts say the UK as a whole is moving out of the pandemic and into a more manageable stage.
The head of BioNTech, the pharmaceutical company involved in producing the Pfizer vaccine, said that Europe could achieve herd immunity within four months.
The government’s traffic light system for grading countries will be published as early as the middle of next week for the start of non-essential overseas travel from May 17. The government’s Covid operations committee met to discuss the plan yesterday.
Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, confirmed in the Commons that the traffic light system would be based on four tests: vaccination rates, the number of coronavirus cases, the prevalence of “variants of concern” and the quality of testing data.
It is understood that at least 40 per cent of the population of most countries will have to have had at least one dose of a vaccine to be green-listed.
It is likely that the initial list will be heavily restricted because of concerns over continually high Covid-19 rates in most of mainland Europe and the sluggish rollout of the vaccine programme.
There are also fears that British ports and airports could be overwhelmed by any rapid reopening of international travel, with additional red tape already leading to delays of up to six hours at Heathrow, the UK’s busiest airport.
However, an analysis by the PC Agency, a travel consultancy, said that based on current rates of infection and vaccine take-up, as many as 24 countries or British overseas territories could be declared green for May 17.
This includes Mediterranean destinations such as Portugal, Gibraltar, Malta, Israel and Morocco. Caribbean islands that could open up include Antigua, Barbados, Jamaica, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands and St Lucia, plus Bermuda in the North Atlantic.
Not all these countries have high vaccination rates but are still considered likely candidates because of low overall cases of Covid-19. Most require proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test before entry.
Ministers will keep the initial list limited but the PC Agency said it expected it to more than double from June 28 to include countries such as Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Poland and the US.
Paul Charles, chief executive of the PC Agency, said: “While most European countries will be in a position to reopen in June, there are still some countries which are in a safe and stable enough position to reopen in May, namely the likes of Malta, Gibraltar, Barbados and Portugal. Vaccine rollouts are picking up pace in Europe and also in the Caribbean.”
A government source said there was a “big old row going on” between the departments of health and transport over the initial list.
The Department for Transport is “worried that the green list is going to be so small that it’ll be pointless”, the source said. A second source added: “As ever during the pandemic, health don’t want to take any risk at all. Health doesn’t want anything; DfT wants everything.”
Last night President Macron, announced that Britons will be allowed to travel to France on holiday from June 9 provided they have proof of being vaccinated.
EasyJet, the UK’s busiest airline, currently operates a massively reduced network but said it was preparing to “ramp up” services quickly when restrictions on travel are lifted.
The cut-price tests for inbound travellers were revealed by Shapps, who said they were being offered by a new entrant to the government’s approved list of companies providing PCR tests.
The cost could fall further if the government elects to remove VAT. If passed on to the customer, it would reduce the cost of a PCR test by a fifth, meaning the cheapest test on offer would be £36.