Holidaymakers from England travelling to amber list countries will not have to quarantine on return if they are fully vaccinated, but Britons living overseas will not be able to prove their vaccine status if they have been jabbed abroad.
The rule change, which will take effect from 19 July, could open up swathes of European tourist destinations such as France, Spain, Portugal and Greece to travellers, though countries could impose their own quarantine rules on arrivals from England.
However, although the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said UK travellers would be able to “visit their family and friends who they’ve not seen for such a long time”, the government said it would not accept any proof of vaccination apart from the NHS app or certificate.
The move is likely to cause a significant backlash from UK citizens living abroad who have been vaccinated in their countries of residence, often with the same vaccines as used by the NHS.
A Department for Transport source confirmed those vaccinated abroad would not be able to prove their vaccine status and must quarantine on arrival in the UK, but said the rule was only “phase one” and that work was ongoing to recognise foreign certification.
The move is also likely to mean younger travellers may be excluded from many overseas summer breaks. The government currently aims to have offered two vaccinations – with an eight-week gap – to all over-18s by mid-September.
“I don’t underestimate for a second just how difficult the last 16 months have been for those who have not been able to travel to see their families, and the tourism and for the aviation sector itself, of course, and no minister, let alone transport secretary, would want to ever curtail freedom and ask people not to travel,” Shapps said.
“Protecting public health has rightly been and will continue to be our overriding priority of this government, and that’s why we introduced some of the toughest border measures in the world. But we are now, thanks to our brilliant vaccination programme, in a position where we can start to think about how we live with coronavirus while returning life to a sense of normality.”
The change will potentially open up travel to 140 amber list countries, including the majority of tourist destinations, though some countries impose strict limits on UK travellers and even those that allow quarantine-free travel may require significant paperwork or negative tests.
Travellers will still have to take pre-departure tests and will be required to take a PCR test on day two of their return but will no longer need to take a day eight test. It will mean the requirements for green and amber list countries are the same for fully vaccinated people.
The government will count full vaccination as meaning 14 days having passed since the final dose of a vaccine. Children under 18 arriving from amber list countries will not have to isolate on return. The new rules do not yet apply to the rest of the UK, because health matters are devolved.
Speaking in the House of Commons, Shapps said the UK government wanted to work with devolved administrations “to ensure we achieve our shared objectives of safe, sustainable and robust return to international travel”.
Shapps said 30 countries and territories recognised the UK’s vaccine certification as part of entry requirements and were either accepting proof of vaccination letters or the NHS app.
He said he hoped the change would encourage vaccine take-up rates, adding: “We continue to encourage people to take up the vaccine when offered not only to protect themselves, but also to restore previous freedoms, more safely.”
Shapps said travellers should still expect delays and disruption and that “travel will not be the same as it was”, warning that checks at the border would mean longer waits.
He said the changes would “prioritise those vaccinated in the United Kingdom”, adding: “We want to welcome international visitors back to the UK and are working to extend our approach to vaccinated passengers from important markets and holiday destinations later this summer, such as the United States and the EU.”
Airlines and airports welcomed the announcement but urged the government to go further in time for summer, including relaxing the testing requirements for fully vaccinated travellers and extending the exemption to inbound travellers as well as UK holidaymakers.
Johan Lundgren, easyJet’s chief executive, said the move meant Europe was turning green for fully vaccinated travellers, but unnecessary testing remained in place. “We do not want to see a return to flying being a preserve of the rich, and expensive testing could sadly make travel out of reach for some this summer,” he said.