Travellers, airlines and holiday companies are waiting anxiously for the latest round of changes to international travel restrictions to be announced.
Thursday 16 September is the day that, according to the now-traditional timetable, the three-weekly “traffic light review” is due – in which countries are shuffled between the green, amber and red lists.
But all the indications are that a more wide-ranging announcement will be made by the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, on Friday.
The UK’s current rules are making holidaymakers jumpy about committing to a trip, and are slowly destroying the outbound and inbound travel industry – along with millions of jobs.
With furlough ending on 30 September, ministers now appear to want to limit further damage to the travel industry.
Leaks from government sources suggest that big changes will be announced on Friday, with the testing regime for arrivals to the UK potentially eased for vaccinated travellers, and the number of countries on the high-risk “red list” drastically reduced.
What are the current rules for travellers to the UK?
At present the four nations of the UK have some of the highest infection rates in Europe, yet simultaneously the strictest rules on arrivals from abroad.
The UK has no fewer than 62 nations on the red list: travellers from those countries must spend 11 nights of hotel quarantine on arrival in the UK, at their own expense.
From “amber list” nations, which covers most parts of the world, vaccinated arrivals escape self-isolation, but unjabbed travellers must quarantine at home for 10 days.
Even vaccinated travellers from low-risk “green list” countries must take multiple tests: one before departure and another (which must be a PCR) after arrival.
Such a tough regime is hard to justify: if someone is safe in Italy, with one-sixth of the UK’s Covid cases, why should they pay a small fortune for multiple tests in order to fly home?
No other European nation has anything like those restrictions; Germany, which has low case rates, has a red list but no countries currently appear on it.
Will the ‘traffic lights’ disappear?
Briefings indicate that the current complicated system of five separate traffic light categories (including the green watchlist and “super green” rules for Ireland) is likely to be reduced to just three.
At one end of the spectrum, Ireland is expected to retain its special “super green” status, with no restrictions on travel to the UK. At the other extreme, a red list of high-risk locations will continue.
In between, all the other countries will be treated the same. The new category, for which the name “gramber” has unfortunately been suggested, would cover almost everywhere in Europe, including our most popular destinations: Spain, France, Portugal, Italy and Greece.
So why all the fuss about changes?
Because the dismantling of traffic lights is expected to be accompanied by a significant easing of testing. While unjabbed arrivals are likely to continue to need to take multiple tests, vaccinated travellers can expect an easier ride.
Were the “test to fly” before returning to the UK abolished, as one source suggests, then many holidaymakers would feel more comfortable about travelling.
It would reassure travellers that they are not at risk of being denied boarding the flight home and having to spend a couple of weeks in isolation abroad – though, of course, anyone experiencing Covid symptoms abroad should take a test and, if positive, alert the local health authorities.
Ministers have also been talking up the prospects of replacing the so-called “day two” PCR test. This is an expensive hassle – typically adding £50-£70 to the cost of a trip.
The suggestion is that it could be replaced by a cheap and rapid lateral flow test, which would cut the cost but not the red tape: a test would still need to be booked and paid for in advance.
Some experts say diminishing the standard of post-arrival tests is a mistake; if such a test has medical value, it should be the most effective version.
What could the new “red list” look like?
The red list, requiring hotel quarantine on arrival in the UK, is way too long.
Expert analysts concur that Kenya, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Mexico, the Maldives, South Africa and Turkey should be taken off the red list. Of these, the stand-out is the Maldives.
There could also be some additions to the red list, with concerns about dodgy data in Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Venezuela – none of them high in the tourism popularity stakes for British travellers.
A trio of lovely tropical island destinations – Grenada, Jamaica and Fiji – could also be added to the red list due to high infection rates.
But as the UK government has shown many times before, it can deliver wildly different conclusions to those indicated by the data.
Any other possible changes?
Some reports suggest that hotel quarantine – currently costing a solo traveller coming from a red list nation £2,285 – could be replaced by self-isolation at home. This would ease the burden on travellers who are visiting red list countries for essential reasons.
In addition, it would reduce the number of people who are – from a rational personal perspective – travelling more widely in order to stay in a third country, where they can ‘launder’ their Covid status.
The final piece of the jigsaw in aligning the UK with the rest of the world would be to recognise vaccinations administered in places other than Europe and the US.
At present, people who have had Covid jabs in nations from Canada to Dubai to Singapore are being treated as unvaccinated in the UK – typifying what is widely seen as a “keep out” attitude that is demolishing inbound tourism and making life unjustifiably complicated for travellers.
All these changes are focused on coming back to the UK – but how do foreign countries feel about us?
Even if dozens of countries are added to a safe or “gramber” list, created from the green and amber lists combined, that does not necessarily mean those nations are open to UK travellers.
Ever since the first green list was published in May, many countries on the UK’s “low-risk” list have made it clear they do not want British visitors due to our high infection rates.
Yet most European locations are remarkably open, at least to vaccinated travellers, considering the Covid case rates in the UK. Earlier this month I went to Germany, for which I only had to fill out a simple online form and show my vaccination status. Returning to the UK was much more onerous.
The Netherlands, which currently has the highest barriers to British visitors, is opening up from next Wednesday for UK travellers who can demonstrate they are fully jabbed.
But on the other side of the world, Australia and New Zealand show little interest in welcoming us, or anyone else, back.