The first three-weekly update to the UK Governments traffic light list for international travel took place yesterday, with Portugal moved to the amber list to safeguard public health against variants of concern and protect the UK's vaccine rollout.
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Seven countries – including Sri Lanka and Egypt – have also been added to the red list. All changes to the lists will come into effect at 4am on Tuesday 8th June.
The decision to move Portugal (including Madeira and the Azores) to the amber list follows increased concern in the spread of variants of coronavirus, including a mutation of the Delta variant, and the risk that is posed of bringing these back to the UK if people are not required to quarantine.
The situation in Portugal has required swift action to protect the gains made with the vaccine rollout – there has been an almost doubling in the COVID-19 test positivity rate in Portugal since the first review for traffic light allocations, far exceeding the ONS estimated national positivity rate in the UK. More significantly, according to data published on GISAID, 68 cases of the Delta variant of concern have been identified in Portugal, including cases of the Delta variant with an additional, potentially detrimental, mutation.
Public Health England is investigating this variant and mutation, to better understand whether it could be more transmissible and less effectively tackled by vaccines, potentially putting our progress with the roadmap at risk.
The government’s priority is to protect public health, and it has therefore decided to act quickly to make this change. All classification changes have been decided by ministers, informed by the latest data and analysis by the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) and wider public health factors, to help people understand the risks to public health here from travellers returning from different destinations.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: "The public has always known travel will be different this year and we must continue to take a cautious approach to reopening international travel in a way that protects public health and the vaccine rollout.
"While we are making great progress in the UK with the vaccine rollout, we continue to say that the public should not travel to destinations outside the green list."
The full list of additional countries added to the ‘red list’ includes Afghanistan, Bahrain, Costa Rica, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Trinidad and Tobago. For countries going on the red list today, COVID-19 prevalence is assessed to be high and there is evidence to suggest community transmission of variants of concern.
While the number of ‘green list’ destinations remains low, the government is urging the public not to travel to amber classified destinations to play their role in protecting public health. This is due to the prevalence of variants of concern and general rates of coronavirus being greater in amber destinations, meaning the risk to public health is also greater.
UK Health Security Agency chief executive Dr Jenny Harries said: "Increases in case rates in the UK serve as a reminder that this pandemic is not over yet and we need to take a cautiouapproach. Everyone should observe the travel guidance, continue to follow hands, face, space and fresh air, and have both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine when offered. Testing will help to break chains of transmission and allow us to see which variants are circulating so make sure you get tested when you return to the UK in line with the guidance."
People returning to the UK require proof of a negative test, taken within 3 days before the service on which they will arrive in England departs. Those returning from amber countries must also book and pay for day 2 and day 8 COVID-19 travel tests for when they return to the UK; only the day 2 test is required for those returning from green countries.
The government has always stated that international travel will be different this year, both in terms of passenger experience and with regards to what countries the public could visit to protect the hard-fought gains of the vaccine programme rollout. However, passengers should be aware that while COVID-19 travel restrictions are in place, queue waiting times may be longer than usual.
The government is also announcing that as part of a limited trial, from 8th June, direct flights will be permitted to England from countries on the ‘red list’ that were previously subject to flight bans, so long as they arrive at dedicated terminals at Heathrow and Birmingham airports.
The requirement for these direct flights to arrive at dedicated facilities will help keep more red list passengers separate from others, helping to ensure they are processed as safely and efficiently as possible and then travel straight to their managed quarantine hotel and reduce queues at the border.
As international travel reopens safely, the government will maintain 100% health checks at the border. Its top priority is protecting the health of the public and the UK's enhanced borders regime, including mandatory hotel quarantine for arrivals from red list countries, which is helping minimise the risk of new variants being imported into the UK.
However, many ‘green list’ countries will continue to place restrictions on travellers from the UK, including quarantine measures, so passengers are strongly encouraged to check all entry requirements and FCDO travel advice before they book any foreign travel.
Charlie Cornish, MAG CEO, said: “We were told the traffic light system would allow people to travel safely, with the right measures in place to manage risk for different countries.
“But it is now clear the Government doesn’t trust its own system and that international travel is being unfairly scapegoated, with tens of thousands of jobs placed at risk in the process.
“Low-risk destinations continue to be left off the green list despite clear evidence they are safe to visit. With case rates lower than the UK, we simply cannot understand why the likes of the Balearics, the Canaries and some Greek islands do not fall into that category.
“If we followed the approach being taken across Europe, lots of other countries – like the United States, Germany and Italy – would also be classed as green.
“Instead, we’re stuck with a system that is clearly not fit for purpose and will deny people the opportunity to travel abroad safely this year.
“The lack of transparency is shocking and totally unacceptable. If the Government has information that supports its decisions, then it needs to publish it. We have repeatedly asked for this data, but we are being left in the dark about how it is making these choices, with no opportunity for scrutiny or challenge.
“That is not the way to go about limiting people’s freedoms and crippling the country’s travel and tourism sectors. With so much at stake, we need immediate transparency and urgent action to make this system of travel restrictions fit for purpose.”
ADS Chief Executive Kevin Craven said: “The aerospace industry continues to be severely impacted by international travel restrictions. Today’s changes to the travel lists will cause further uncertainty to passengers and the wider aviation sector. Both the industry and the public need a resilient system that minimises the need for frequent changes to country classifications.
“The system should give clarity, while keeping the costs of testing low and creating a clear pathway for internationally recognised COVID certification that allows quarantine requirements to be removed.
“Successful vaccination programmes in the UK and elsewhere, including in the US and Europe, are enabling our battered economies to reopen and reconnecting with our major international trading partners will be a significant contributor to a full recovery.”
N.B.: If travelling abroad, you need to take steps to keep safe and prepare in case things change while you are there. Check and subscribe to FCDO travel advice updates to understand the latest entry requirements and COVID-19 rules.