Fully vaccinated Britons look set to be allowed to visit Europe without restrictions this summer, after ambassadors from the 27 member states backed plans to admit anyone who has had two jabs of an approved inoculation.
But health secretary Matt Hancock confirmed that the UK is not following Europe’s lead by exempting vaccinated people from its “traffic light” system of restrictions, which currently demands 10 days’ quarantine for anyone returning from the continent – with the exception of Portugal.
Labour called for the government to ditch the traffic light system – branding it “as secure as a sieve” – in favour of a tighter scheme of blanket quarantine in airport hotels for all arrivals from abroad.
Deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam said the EU plans for freedom to travel for vaccinated people were “a fair ambition, a good aspiration”, but urged caution before allowing unrestricted trips for those with their full set of jabs.
Even those whose vaccines protect them from serious illness and death could still pick up the virus and bring it back to the UK, he told a Downing Street press conference.
“It’s a tricky nuance in terms of the argument that just because you’ve had vaccines, it’s entirely safe to go abroad,” said Prof Van-Tam. “Everything is relative. And the other bit of relativity is whether, when you go abroad, you’re jumping into a pond with one shark in it or jumping into a pond with 100 sharks in it. It changes the likelihood that you’re going to get bitten.”
Mr Hancock said the UK had taken note of the EU proposals, but would continue to take a “cautious approach” to international travel. Downing Street said that no further announcement is expected for three weeks on whether more countries can join the so-called “green list”.
Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the government had triggered a surge in holiday bookings by losing control of its message on the rules for amber list areas – which cover most of Europe.
“Yesterday morning the environment secretary said people could fly to amber list countries if they wanted to visit family or friends,” Sir Keir told MPs. “By the afternoon a government health minister said nobody should travel outside Britain this year, because travelling is dangerous.
“The prime minister said that travel from a country should only be where it’s essential. By the evening, the Welsh secretary suggested, some people might think a holiday is essential. The government’s lost control of the messaging.”
Sir Keir said that 170 countries had been placed on the amber list on Monday, removing the previous ban on travel and requiring people arriving from those destinations in England to quarantine at home, not at an airport hotel.
Since then, 150 flights have been going every day to amber list countries, with travel agents reporting “surges” in holiday bookings.
Sir Keir continued: “Why doesn’t the prime minister drop this hopeless system, get control of our borders and introduce a proper system that can protect against the threat of future variants of the virus?”
But Mr Johnson insisted the rules were clear: “You should not be going to an amber list country except for in extreme circumstances, such as the serious illness of a family member. You should not go on holiday.”
EU nations meeting at the European Council agreed recommendations which could see the continent opened up to visitors from a list of “safe” countries, as well as those who have had the full course of a recognised vaccine.
The EU’s “safe list”, currently just eight countries strong, will be re-evaluated on Friday to see if other countries, including the UK, will be added.
Individual countries are still able to make their own decisions about whether they want to accept British travellers, and the policy will need to be signed off by member states.
But it looks likely that travellers from England will be able to use the NHS app to prove they have been fully vaccinated.
Greece and Portugal are already accepting travellers from the UK, either fully vaccinated or with proof of a negative PCR test, as they move to bolster their beleaguered tourism industries.
Last week Spain said it would accept British travellers with no PCR test or quarantine requirement from 20 May, thanks to the advanced vaccine rollout.
European Commission spokesperson Christian Wigand said: “The council will now recommend that member states ease some of the current restrictions, in particular for those vaccinated with an authorised vaccine.”
Asked why the UK was not reciprocating by allowing vaccinated travellers to return to England without quarantine, Mr Hancock told the Downing Street press conference: “Most countries in Europe have a higher rate of the virus than we do – some significantly.
“And there is also a much more significant presence of the so-called South African variant of concern in mainland Europe – on the latest data, the proportion of the South African variant in France was around 5 per cent and hence we’ve kept it on the amber list.”
He added: “We take these decisions in order to protect the recovery at home.”