Will Europe close its doors to Brits this summer?

Pressure is mounting on the government to relax summer travel rules after new figures revealed less than one in 200 travellers returning from “amber list” countries are testing positive for coronavirus.

Analysis of NHS Test and Trace data by The Times found that “fewer than one in 200 people” travelling into the UK from countries that require ten days’ quarantine had contracted the virus, while “no variants of concern” were detected in passengers returning from amber list destinations.

However, as cases of the Delta variant continue to rise in the UK, summer travel restrictions could be dictated by whether European holiday destinations will admit Brits, rather than whether the UK government feels travel to the continent is safe.

View from the UK

For would-be British travellers, a welcome announcement may be made this week. Government ministers are set to announce an overhaul of travel restrictions on Thursday, reports The Times

While ministers are “not expected to add a significant number of countries to the green list”, it is thought they are “likely” to reveal plans to exempt travellers who have received both jabs from a ten-day quarantine after visiting an amber list destination, says the paper. 

Indeed, quarantine-free travel for the fully vaccinated is “absolutely something” the government is “working on”, the health secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News this afternoon. 

He added: “This hasn’t been clinically advised yet [but] we’re working on it.” 

While The Times reports that the plan could come into force in August, Hancock was less forthcoming on dates, telling Sky: “We’ll get there when it’s safe to do so.”

Earlier this week, analysis by The Times revealed that only 89 of 23,465 passengers who travelled from the UK to an amber list destination between 20 May and 9 June tested positive for coronavirus on returning home, a rate of just 0.4%. 

There were no positive cases from 151 of the 167 amber list countries, while nobody travelling from the 11 countries on the quarantine-free “green list” tested positive during the same period. Of those who did test positive, none carried a “variant of concern”. 

The figures have led to calls from backbench Tory MPs and travel industry bosses to relax the rules on foreign travel and significantly expand the “green list”.

Graham Brady, chairman of the influential 1922 committee, said it was time “to get the travel industry moving again”, adding: “Vaccination and testing are making international travel safer just as surely as they make things safer within our borders,” Travel Weekly reports.

The Department for Transport is also mulling plans to “exempt unvaccinated children from the double jab scheme” to allow families to holiday together, the paper adds. Under-18s would still face tests to screen for Covid, but would not have to quarantine.

However, The Times reports that “parts of the government” are keen to hold off on the plans until at least September, in order to avoid “an influx of children returning from foreign holidays and spreading the virus in schools,” says the paper. 

While ministers weigh up plans to make summer getaways possible, the government remains concerned by the spread of the Delta variant, which has become dominant in the UK and is beginning to rise in Europe

Speaking to Sky News yesterday, Justice Minister Robert Buckland said ministers will be “guided by the evidence” when it comes to foreign travel.

“Inevitably, in a situation as unprecedented and demanding as this, there are going to have to be significant trade-offs and it’s clear that holidays as normal – or travel as normal – was never going to be the case, bearing in mind the rise of particular variants, most notably the Delta variant,” he said.

The strain now accounts for 99% of new cases in the UK. And while deaths remain low – mostly in single figures per day – infections have increased and hospitalisations are rising. According to Public Health England, the number of confirmed cases of the Delta variant had risen by 33,630 cases in the week to 16 June to 75,953.

New research has also found the variant “doubles the risk of hospitalisation”, Politico reports, a factor causing significant concern in mainland Europe.

And a “fresh blow” for the travel industry was delivered by Boris Johnson during a visit to Hertfordshire on Monday, reports the Financial Times, with the prime minister keen to underline he did not expect overseas travel to return to normal until next year at the earliest. 

“I want to stress that this is going to be – whatever happens – a difficult year for travel,” Johnson said. “There will be hassle, there will be delays, I am afraid, because the priority has got to be to keep the country safe and stop the virus coming back in.”  

View from Europe

Even if the government is keen for holidays to Europe to restart, it is far from guaranteed that British holidaymakers will be allowed to enter popular European destinations before the end of the summer.

European experts are looking to the UK “for clues about what may happen next and which measures may need to be taken”, the Financial Times (FT) says, with some fearing that “wherever the Delta variant is introduced, it will eventually become dominant”.

The strain is “gaining ground” on the continent and is now dominant in Portugal, which was on the UK government’s “green list” until it was removed almost three weeks ago

The variant accounts for 26% of sequenced Covid-19 infections in Italy, 16% in Belgium and around 7% in France, according to FT analysis. 

Several European countries have travel restrictions in place to limit people from the UK entering, including Ireland, which is set to “double the quarantine period” for travellers entering from Britain from five to ten days, according to The Guardian.

France currently requires a negative test result from within 72 hours for anyone entering from the UK, as well as a seven-day quarantine for unvaccinated travellers. And Germany has declared the UK a “virus variant area of concern”, allowing only German citizens, residents or those with humanitarian reasons to enter the country. 

The key to Europe opening up to travellers is likely to be through mass vaccination. However, jab rates remain relatively low compared to the UK, with the proportion of the population now fully protected hovering at around 20% to 30% across the bloc, according to Oxford University tracking.