Since the third lockdown began four months ago, international travel for non-essential purposes has been illegal. The ban on overseas travel will end on Monday 17 May.
Ten days ahead of that, on Friday 7 May, the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, is expected to reveal the new “traffic light system”. It evaluates the risk that arrivals from abroad (including returning holidaymakers) will pose to public health in the UK.
Countries and, in some cases, individual islands, will be rated as red, amber or green. The criteria are: coronavirus infection rates, reliability of data, prevalence of “variants of concern”, genomic sequencing capability, vaccine roll-out and passengers connecting through key hubs.
Only people coming in from green list countries escape self-isolation, though they must pay £100 or more for pre-departure and post-arrival tests.
These are the 10 most popular questions asked of the travel desk of The Independent.
Which countries will be on it?
At present we have a vast amount of speculation and a very limited amount of knowledge.
Ireland is likely to retain its “supergreen” status, with no significant checks for incoming travellers to the UK thanks to its membership of the Common Travel Area.
Follow travel news live: Green list of safe countries to be announced as foreign holiday rules ease
Gibraltar, Iceland and Israel seem certain for the green list. Finland and Norway are looking increasingly likely. Albania, unlike its Balkan neighbours, has very low coronavirus cases and may be a possibility.
None of these nations are mass-market destinations. The leading contenders for southern Europe sun are Malta and Portugal.
The transport secretary has made it clear that Gulf nations that are key aviation hubs – including the UAE and Qatar – will remain on the red list indefinitely, despite the progress of their vaccination programmes.
“We are not restricting UAE because of levels of coronavirus in the UAE,” Mr Shapps said. “The specific issue in the UAE is one of transit. It’s because they are a major transit hub.”
But Saudi Arabia, which has relatively few transit travellers, may make the green list.
Some Caribbean islands seem feasible, including Antigua & Barbuda, Barbados and St Lucia.
Among the UK’s Atlantic islands, the following are strong contenders: Ascension Island, the Falkland Islands, St Helena, Tristan da Cunha and South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands. Technically these locations can be reached without going through red or amber locations.
Alongside these candidates will be a similar number of places that are on the list but irrelevant: either they are not letting in British tourists any time soon, or they are impossible to reach without going through amber or red countries.
The most prominent members of the “no visitors, please” category will be Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, along with a number of South Pacific nations: the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu.
Two weeks ago Fiji looked certain, but its status is now in doubt because of a recent spike in cases.
The “inaccessible” category includes Bhutan, the British Antarctic Territory and British Indian Ocean Territory, Northern Mariana Islands, San Marino (landlocked by Italy), US Virgin Islands and Wallis & Futuna.
Is this ‘England only’ or a four-nations approach by the whole UK?
Technically, the announcement is for England, because Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will make their own decisions. But with Wales and Scotland in mid-election, and Northern Ireland in political disarray with the resignation of the first minister, it is likely that they will not be in a feasible position to commit to the approach. I expect this to happen early next week.
How often will the list change?
The list is expected to change every three weeks. Assuming the government sticks to this plan, the first three key dates are 28 May, 18 June and 9 July. Those may vary by some days.
Urgent changes, likely to be placing a country in a stricter category, will be made at any time.
It is not clear how quickly any change decisions will come into effect, but if a country is placed on the “green watchlist” it is at risk of being moved to amber in the next reshuffle.
Can I transit through other countries between a green list nation and the UK without penalty?
No. The only possible leeway is driving through France without interacting with anyone and then taking a Eurotunnel shuttle from Calais to Folkestone. But since nowhere within driving range is likely to be on the green list, this is currently a moot option.
If my destination turns amber or red, can I claim my money back?
Should the trip – whether a flight or holiday – go ahead, there is no automatic entitlement to a refund. The travel company can carry out its contractural obligation to take you to the destination – the fact you face quarantine on your return is not its problem.
In practice, though, most firms will cancel departures to red list locations, and many will also axe trips to amber list as well. When this happens, you are entitled to a full refund.
If the trip does go ahead, though, a good company will offer a voucher.
Can I get travel insurance against my destination being placed on the red or amber list?
No. What I call “traffic light colour change cover” doesn’t exist – and I don’t believe any travel insurer will be prepared to offer such a policy. The government makes it clear that a country could move into a tougher category at a moment’s notice.
The potential financial hit from a downgrade from green ranges from the cost of an expensive holiday if the change happens before a trip to the cost of hotel quarantine and lost wages. Calculating risk is impossible, because there is no useful historical data. An insurer would need to price the premium so high that no rational traveller would touch it.
A spokesperson for the leading travel insurer, Staysure, said: “If a trip is cancelled or rescheduled due to a change in traffic light colour, the travel provider would often be able to make those changes directly with the customer and without needing to make a claim.
“If that was unsuccessful, Staysure wouldn’t cover that event if it was due to traffic light changes alone.”
Does being vaccinated make my life easier when I come back to Britain?
No. You may find it surprising that the UK government regards UK vaccinations as irrelevant from the point of view of arriving in the UK. But of course being jabbed does not confer 100 per cent immunity.
Must children quarantine too?
Can I leave the UK again before my quarantine ends?
Yes, so long as you go direct to the airport/international rail station/ferry port. On trips of less than eight days, you do not have to book the second post-arrival PCR test. But on a very short trip to the UK, you must still book a day two test, even if you do not take it.
Any chance of islands getting green status?
Yes. Grant Shapps says he wants to continue the “islands approach” that was eventually adopted by the UK in September 2020. Until mandatory quarantine for all arrivals was brought back, it meant visitors to some Spanish, Portuguese and Greek islands did not need to self-isolate on return to the UK.
It could be expanded to other parts of the world, including Indian Ocean archipelagos and Pacific islands such as the Galapagos and Easter Island.