By Guy Faulconbridge and Alistair Smout
LONDON – Britain is working on easing travel restrictions for the fully vaccinated to allow people to enjoy a summer holiday on Europe’s beaches but the plans are not finalised yet, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Tuesday.
Currently British citizens are essentially prevented from travelling to most countries – including those in the European Union – as the quarantine and testing rules are so cumbersome and expensive.
British tourists are the second biggest outbound holiday spenders in Europe after Germans so their absence hurts the economies of southern Europe while the British tourism sector is reeling from a ruinous loss of income due to the restrictions.
Hancock told Sky News that the government did want to let people have a family holiday abroad, but only when it was safe to do so.
“The whole point of the vaccine programme is to be able to remove restrictions, and for people to be able to be kept safe by the vaccine, rather than by these rules,” Hancock told LBC.
“So we are working on a plan for double vaccinated people, using tests, to have that testing regime in place, instead of having to have the quarantine, in some circumstances,” he said.
Asked by Sky if vaccinated people would get their freedom back by August and so enjoy a foreign holiday this year, Hancock said he understood people wanted their freedoms back.
For months, British ministers have given a host of contradictory signals about when and how travel rules will be eased more than a year since the most onerous restrictions in Britain’s peacetime history were imposed to halt the virus.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday that travellers would face hassle and delays this year if they sought to go abroad because the priority would be keeping the country safe.
Johnson, who was slow to impose an initial lockdown in 2020, is wary of moving too fast to open up travel as the Delta variant first detected in India spreads.
Britain has the seventh highest death toll from COVID-19 globally of nearly 128,000 deaths but has one of the fastest vaccine rollouts in the world, with 80% of adults having received a first COVID-19 vaccine dose and nearly 60% a second shot.
Popular European holiday destinations for Britons, including Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and Greece, are currently rated “amber”, which require returning passengers to take three expensive COVID-19 tests and isolate for 10 days on return.
But travel companies are desperate to avoid another summer lost to COVID-19, and have demanded the government acts.
European Union countries have already agreed to an easing of travel restrictions over summer that will allow fully vaccinated tourists to avoid tests or quarantines and broaden the list of EU regions from which it is safe to travel, but Britain has yet to announce a similar scheme.
Britain’s leading travel companies such as the British Airways-owner IAG and easyJet have cut thousands of jobs and raised billions of pounds to survive the pandemic.
The Times newspaper reported that Britain would announce an easing on Thursday to allow British holidaymakers who have had both coronavirus jabs to enjoy more quarantine-free travel from August.
It is unclear how children – who have not yet been offered a vaccine in Britain – will travel. Hancock refused to give details or a timeframe for an easing of restrictions but said he was supportive of a change.
“It is absolutely something we’re working on – it’s something I want to see,” he said.