Boris Johnson is on course to give the green light to holidays abroad from May 17 – as the Government was buoyed by a triple dose of good news on vaccines.
The Prime Minister will announce that the near-blanket ban on foreign travel will be replaced by a traffic-light system, paving the way for holidays overseas in six weeks.
Countries will be assessed according to their vaccination programmes, infection rates and prevalence of known variants and ability to identify them.
While only a handful of popular European destinations are expected to be given ‘green’ status, it will likely open the way to trips to countries including the Maldives, Gibraltar, Malta and Israel.
Foreign holidays could be just six weeks away as the Prime Minister prepares to give green light to traffic light system
With the potential for circumstances to change, the first list of ‘green’ countries will not be announced until next month.
However, even travel to and from approved countries will require at least three Covid tests for each holidaymaker – one before departure back to Britain and two after returning – leaving families facing extra bills potentially running into hundreds of pounds.
Renewed hope that millions of Britons will be able to take a summer holiday abroad comes as Britain’s vaccination programme continues to make huge strides.
The Mail on Sunday can reveal that an efficiency drive at the Oxford Biomedica factory, encouraged by Mr Johnson, will allow the production of 5 million extra doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine a year, making it the most efficient producer of that vaccine in the world.
In North Wales, a so-called ‘fill and finish’ plant, where the vaccine is decanted into vials for distribution, is in the process of increasing the number of production lines, while the European boss of pharma giant Moderna said 200,000 doses of their vaccine will soon begin arriving in the UK every week.
With the rate of second doses accelerating, using supplies of the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines, almost all the Moderna doses will be administered to those aged under 50.
In each of the last four days more second doses have been given than first doses, allowing the Government to hail the milestone of achieving more than 5 million second doses. That means more than one in ten adults have now had both shots.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said it represented fresh evidence ‘of progress along the road to freedom’. Meanwhile, the number of first doses reached 31.4 million, just shy of 60 per cent of all adults.
The stream of positive news came as:
- Daily Covid deaths fell to ten, the lowest number since September 14, as hospitals admissions fell by 23 per cent week-on-week and positive tests were down more than 28 per cent over the same period;
- A new Anti-Virals Taskforce is being set up to develop innovative coronavirus treatments, sources told this newspaper, with the creation of a simple pill to ward off the serious symptoms of the virus top of its list of aims;
- A single-dose vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson is expected to be approved for use by Britain’s medical regulator ‘within weeks’, according to Government insiders;
- Ministers are set to launch a door-to-door vaccination push to help boost take-up among ethnic minorities, following the success of pilot schemes in Luton and Bradford where everyone over the age of 18 in a house was offered jabs at the same time;
- Oxford University and the Office for National Statistics are to examine the low take-up as early evidence suggested ethnic groups who have shunned vaccinations may have started to see higher Covid infection and death rates;
- As Mr Johnson praised the role of church volunteers in the vaccine rollout, police were criticised for breaking up a Good Friday service at a South London Catholic church;
- The Government is preparing to launch a PR offensive to encourage Britons to have staycations in the UK cities which have been badly hit by lockdown and the near-disappearance of overseas travellers;
- Tens of millions of pints of beer are being delivered to the nation’s pubs ahead of the next easing of lockdown in eight days’ time;
- Families pleaded with Ministers to further clarify the rules on care home visits after April 12 to avoid a postcode lottery;
- France was plunged back into a near-full lockdown with tougher Covid-19 restrictions being enforced across much of Europe.
Downing Street hopes to reach its target of offering a vaccine to all 32 million people in the first nine priority groups this week, earlier than its target date of April 15.
Writing on Twitter, Mr Johnson said: ‘We have made huge strides over the past few months with our vaccine programme and everyone in the country has made huge sacrifices to get us to this stage in our recovery from Covid-19.
‘We are doing everything we can to enable the reopening of our country so people can return to the events, travel and other things they love as safely as possible, and these reviews will play an important role in allowing this to happen.’
Meanwhile, he used an Easter message to pay tribute to the ‘church leaders and congregations that have stepped up to support us all in these very challenging times’, adding: ‘But, as ever, the arrival of Easter brings with it new hope.’
MP Henry Smith: The Prime Minister can either take a huge step forward in our national recovery or put millions of jobs in severe risk
By Crawley and Gatwick MP Henry Smith
The importance of the Prime Minister’s expected statement next week on the reopening of international travel cannot be underestimated. In one statement he can either take a huge step forward in our national recovery, provide another false dawn for an industry on its knees or put millions of jobs in severe risk.
Over the last twelve months, our aviation, travel and tourism sectors have been amongst the most affected sectors by the COVID-19 pandemic and the impacts have been brutal, devastating and far reaching.
Passenger numbers have fallen to historically low levels, with last summer seeing the lowest level of international air travel since 1975, with passenger numbers down by 99% during the worst periods of the last twelve months.
These impacts are not confined simply to numbers and statistics, there are very real human impacts of the collapse in international travel.
Impacts that are often untold, neglected and forgotten. From the airport and airline staff who have lost their jobs, to the businesses in the supply chain who have shut their doors for good, to the many families who have been unable to visit loved ones living overseas.
Our aviation, travel and tourism sectors have been amongst the most affected sectors by the COVID-19 pandemic (pictured is Gatwick Airport in February 2021)
The inclusion of international travel in the Prime Minister’s roadmap out of the COVID-19 restrictions was warmly welcomed, as was the potential date of May 17th for the restart of international travel.
However, since then, we have had a conveyor belt of mixed messages from Government ministers that has left holidaymakers confused and dashed the hopes of businesses impacted by the collapse in international travel who have suffered enough pain over the last twelve months to last a lifetime.
The Government are right to remain vigilant about COVID-19 and potential variants of concern, which is why nobody is suggesting an immediate return to restriction-free travel.
But, with the huge progress we have made as nation in the last few months through the combined sacrifices of everyone and our world-leading vaccination programme, the time has come to strike the right balance between risk and reopening international travel.
I know that for some the situation in some European nations leads to the conclusion that the safest and best course of action is to keep our borders closed and remain in splendid isolation. This is a dangerous approach that dismisses the progress from our vaccination programme but also fundamentally fails to understand the economic importance and value of aviation to the UK.
Aviation is about more than summer holidays; it is a major economic enabler and one which will be central our economic recovery. We know that a ‘lost summer’ of international travel will put a million more jobs at risk and cost £55.7bn in lost trade if reopening is delayed until September. We know that our hospitality, retail and leisure sectors will not fully recover without the £30 billion that international visitors spend every year in our shops, restaurants, high streets and attractions.
We know that a safe and sustainable resumption of international travel from 17 May would generate a GDP injection of £47.6bn and help secure more than a million jobs otherwise under threat – worth some £200m a day to our economy.
That is why we need a clear direction from the Prime Minister on how and when international travel can restart. It should take into account where we are and crucially where we will be by May 17th, by which time our vaccination programme will have provided many more of us with protection from the virus.
A risk-based approach to international travel using a traffic light system can allow for travel to low-risk nations with minimal or no restrictions but retain the flexibility for restrictions for nations where there remains a real, high risk including those with variants of concern. This framework can ensure that the right balance is struck between reopening travel with minimal restrictions and making sure this can be done safely.
One of the central features to this approach would be a ‘green list’ that allows for travel to low-risk nations with minimal or no restrictions. For many, this list will form the basis of their summer holiday plans so the criteria for the lists must be publicly available, clear and consistent. We cannot and must not return to the stop and start chaos that rendered last summer a false dawn for the aviation, travel and tourism industry and for holidaymakers.
Where continuing restrictions are required, they must acknowledge the significant progress made in recent months, particularly on testing.
Research published this week by Edge Health and Oxera showed that rapid antigen testing can be just as effective as a 10-day quarantine period for stopping the spread of the virus. It is therefore clear that rapid testing must be introduced for international arrivals where necessary.
Alongside this, the Government must set out a clear plan and criteria for the abolition of all quarantine policies as soon as is safe to do so, as well as ensuring that the cost of testing is kept affordable and is not allowed to become a disincentive to travel. It cannot and should not be the case that families have to several times more for tests than they do for their flights or accommodation.
The Government must also ensure that the framework for international travel ensures that all Government departments work in lockstep with each other and the framework.
We need to ensure that the Foreign Office Travel Advice is amended in line with the traffic light system and that Border Force receive the full resources that they will need to avoid chaotic scenes at passport control as a result of additional COVID-19 measures.
Too often have we seen queues out the door in airports in recent months, despite barely any passengers travelling, due to Border Force’s insufficient resources and lengthy document-checking processes.
The consequences of failing to back a risk-based approach to the reopening of international travel are unthinkable. That’s why we need the Prime Minister to announce that the ban on international travel will be lifted from May 17th and to work with industry and our partners throughout the world to restart travel, ensuring that travel to low-risk nations has limited or no restrictions.
We cannot begin our long road to national recovery if we keep our skies shut throughout the summer months.
Our aviation industry will continue to face considerable challenges over the next few years, but the safe reopening of international travel has the potential to kickstart our economic and social recovery and we simply cannot afford another false dawn.