Travellers from England will be allowed to resume foreign holidays later this month but will be able to visit only a handful of destinations without having to quarantine on their return.
Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, confirmed plans on Friday for a “traffic light” system to reopen international travel from May 17. He said Portugal, Gibraltar and Israel would be among 12 countries and territories on the least restricted “green list”.
The others are Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Singapore, Brunei, New Zealand, Australia, Ascension Island and St Helena, along with the barely inhabited South Georgia, Tristan da Cunha and South Sandwich Islands.
Travellers returning from countries on the green list will not need to quarantine but will have to take a Covid-19 test before they return to England, and a more costly PCR test on their second day after arrival.
Not all of the green list countries, however, will be open to British tourists. Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Brunei, for example, restrict international arrivals.
Shapps said the government was taking its “first, albeit tentative” steps towards reopening its borders, and that the approach was “necessarily cautious”.
“We must make absolutely sure that the countries we reconnect with are safe,” he said.
The plans apply only to England, meaning that Scots and Welsh eager for holidays could rush over the border to English airports. The Department for Transport said that it hoped the devolved nations would work with Westminster on the travel guidance.
In a blow to the travel industry, tourist hotspots including Spain, France and Greece were classified amber, meaning returning passengers will have to self-isolate for 10 days on their return, and take PCR tests on day two and day eight after return, with the option of an additional “test to release” after five days.
“I regret that favourite summer destinations like France, Spain and Greece are not yet included,” Shapps said.
The list will be updated every three weeks, and travellers will be given advance warning if there are concerns over rising cases in countries on the green list.
“Thanks to a downward trend in Covid cases and improving vaccination rates, we fully expect France and Spain to be reclassified as green countries in the weeks ahead,” Christophe Mathieu, Brittany Ferries chief executive, said.
Those returning from red list countries, which Shapps said would from 4am on Wednesday also include Turkey, Nepal and the Maldives, will have to quarantine in hotels at their own expense and take PCR tests on days two and eight.
The travel industry welcomed any opportunity to resuscitate international travel but was disappointed ministers did not open up more countries to frictionless travel.
“We cannot stress more greatly that the UK urgently needs travel between it and other low-risk countries, like the US, to restart the economy, support devastated industries and reunite loved ones,” Sean Doyle, British Airways chief executive, said.
The World Travel and Tourism Council warned that the UK government was being too cautious and said that not reopening travel to the US was “hugely disappoint[ing]”.
Ryanair said that in response to the announcement it would add an additional 175,000 seats between English and Portuguese airports from May 17 to the end of October.
Shapps warned holidaymakers to expect considerable delays at passport control, as electronic passport gates have been shut and Border Force officers are manually checking each passenger entering the country. It is currently taking five to 10 minutes to check each passenger, up from a normal 25 seconds.
Extra officers are being deployed, but queues have reached more than six hours at Heathrow with only a fraction of the normal number of people flying. One aviation executive said every airport in the country is worried about similar scenes this summer unless officials move to spot checks or digitise all the checks.
Travel industry executives are also concerned that the cost of PCR tests could put people off travelling and have called on the government to lower prices and ditch the requirement for vaccinated travellers.
The UK is one of the most expensive places in the world to take a PCR test, with prices ranging from £70 to more than £250, according to airline industry group Iata.
The travel ban on Turkey complicates football’s Uefa Champions League final, scheduled to be played between two English teams — Manchester City and Chelsea — on May 29. Shapps urged fans not to travel and said the government is in talks with Uefa, European football’s governing body, on the possibility of moving the match to the UK.