How Covid traffic light travel system will work – and when you can book holiday


Brits will finally be able to book summer holidays abroad in a few weeks’ time under a “traffic light” system for international travel.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said there is now “light at the end of the tunnel” for families desperate for summer sun.

But the Global Travel Taskforce review warns the new system does not mark a “return to normal” for travel – which still has no start date.

Even for green list countries, from which no quarantine will be needed, families face bills of hundreds of pounds in tests when they return to the UK.

And “until the picture is clearer, there is a continuing risk of disappointment”, the report warns – because countries could switch from green to red.

The traffic light system is meant to protect the UK’s vaccine rollout by stopping jab-resistant new Covid variants getting a foothold in the UK.

The Global Travel Taskforce review warns the new system does not mark a “return to normal” for travel
The Global Travel Taskforce review warns the new system does not mark a “return to normal” for travel

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But some will fear the system is not strict enough. Even now, for every one traveller in quarantine hotels, there are 36 who manage to avoid them.

And experts fear the government’s suggestion that it could cut costs by replacing gold-standard PCR tests with cheaper, less reliable rapid tests.

So how exactly will the system work for you and your family? Here is what you need to know.

Will foreign holidays be allowed this summer?


Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has confirmed for the first time that Brits will be able to book foreign holidays for later this summer.

The “permission to travel” form, and £5,000 fine for travelling without a valid reason like work or bereavement, will be dropped in late Spring.

Instead countries will be on either a green, amber or red list under a “traffic light” system with different restrictions by level of risk.

However, the date when this starts is yet to be confirmed. There will still be a string of restrictions and costs upon return to the UK.

And of course you could also face separate restrictions in each destination country, which are not covered in this article.

Brits will be able to book foreign holidays for later this summer
Brits will be able to book foreign holidays for later this summer

How will the traffic light system work – and will I need to quarantine when I get home?

Nations will be put on red, amber and green lists allowing different levels of travel and quarantine.

Alongside this will be a green “watchlist”, to signal countries that are currently green but at high risk of becoming amber.

  • Green: Low risk – more relaxed rules than the current system. Arrivals from these countries will not have to quarantine on return to the UK, unless they test positive or show symptoms. But they must take two tests: a pre-departure test before setting off back to the UK, then a second gold-standard PCR test on or before day 2 after they arrive home.
  • Amber: Medium risk – roughly the current rules for all non-‘red list’ countries. Arrivals will need to quarantine for 10 days, but they can do this at their home. They must take three tests – pre-departure, and then PCR tests on day 2 and day 8 after they arrive home. They can choose to pay for a fourth test on day 5, and if it comes back negative they can leave quarantine early. This is called Test to Release.
  • Red: High risk – roughly the current rules for any ‘red list’ countries. Arrivals must quarantine for 10 days in a hotel at £1,750 a head. They must also take three tests – the same as the amber group – and cannot pay for Test to Release.

When will foreign travel start again?

We don’t know.

It will be either on or at some point after May 17.

It seems likely that the traffic light system itself could launch on May 17, but most countries would not be on the green list at that point.

Mr Shapps suggested holidays may only “primarily” open up for the summer season, July and August, rather than May and June.

When can I start booking my holiday?

You can technically start now – but you’d have no idea what country is on what list.

It’s probably better to wait until two to three weeks’ time, when the government plans to allocate countries to the green, red and amber lists.

The government will also set out “by early May” the actual date when international travel can resume and £5,000 fines are dropped.

Mr Shapps – who was caught by his own travel corridor system last year – has said he will hold off on booking his own family break until that point.

The taskforce review warns: “People are of course free to book holidays abroad in the summer.

“But for the moment the government must advise that until the picture is clearer, there is a continuing risk of disappointment.”

Grant Shapps was caught out by his own travel corridor system last summer
Grant Shapps was caught out by his own travel corridor system last summer

Can I be sure my destination will stay on the green list?


The Green Watchlist will aim to give people more notice when countries are about to move off the green list, onto amber or red.

But the taskforce warns: “The Government will not hesitate to act immediately should the data show that countries risk ratings have changed.”

How will countries be put on each list?

The decision for each country will be made based on:

  • Case numbers of mutant variants in community transmission
  • Percentage of that country’s population that has been vaccinated
  • Testing levels and overall infection rates in that country
  • How good the genomic sequencing is in that country to identify new strains

The Joint Biosecurity Centre will “support the process” of allocating countries to each list but the decision will be made by government.

There will also be an ‘analytical framework’ that tracks groups of travellers through their journey to measure if they are transmitting Covid.

How much will it cost me?

Hundreds or even thousands of pounds.

The NHS will not provide free testing for travellers, who must buy them from a government-approved list of private firms.

Consumer group Which? say PCR tests in the UK cost around £120 a head, or £190 for a package of two – higher than in other countries.

Green country arrivals will have to take two tests each, while amber country arrivals must take three tests each and can take a fourth.

Which? say it currently costs £420 for testing for one Brit visiting France, £370 for Greece and £330 for Spain. More than £1,000 for a family of four.

If you return from a red list country your bill will be £1,750 per head for quarantine and testing.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has vowed to cut these costs but that could create a new problem – more below.

How might test prices be cut – and why is that a problem?

Grant Shapps accused some private firms of “profiteering” from Covid tests and is looking at several ways to cut the cost.

One of these is to simply remove high-charging firms from the list of approved test providers unless they cut their price.

Mr Shapps said the tests are “too expensive” and costs should be “driven down” to around half what they are now.

But a more controversial option is to allow rapid “lateral flow” tests as one type of pre-departure test that you could take before returning to the UK.

Not only are lateral flow tests cheaper, they’re being offered free to citizens by the UK government. So you could simply bring one with you in your suitcase, and take it before you head back to the airport.

“You take that lateral flow test away with you, test yourself before you come home, that’s something that we’re looking at,” Mr Shapps said.

But there’s a big problem with this – lateral flow tests are far less accurate than gold-standard PCR tests and miss large numbers of positive cases.

The ‘false negative’ rate depends on which study you look at, but has been put at around a quarter of all positive cases being missed by the test.

Which countries will be on the green and amber lists?

We don’t know yet, and won’t for a few weeks.

Officials are eyeing countries like Israel and the US as places which could end up on the green list.

But it’s said that many popular European destinations such as Spain, France, Italy and Greece could remain amber as they suffer fresh waves.

How long will the traffic light system last?

The overall system will be reviewed three times – by June 28, July 1 and October 1.

Each time, ministers will look at whether the current measures for each “list” can be softened or have to stay as they are.

The reviews will consider the UK’s own vaccine rollout, hospitalisation and death rate, infection rates and levels of mutant Covid strains.

Will rules vary across the UK?

It is possible.

The UK government wants the rules to be “aligned” across the UK, but admits “health matters are devolved, so decision-making and implementation may differ across the UK’s administrations.”

Will there be long queues at airports?

That’s something the government is trying to tackle.

The report admits: “Lengthy checks at the border are creating excess queues, posing a risk to social distancing, passenger welfare and the overall border experience.”

So the passenger locator form – which all arrivals must fill out to show where they will live or quarantine – will be digitised and integrated with e-gates at airports.

This is expected to happen in the largest airports by summer 2021 and all e-gate ports of entry by autumn 2021.

What about cruises?

The report recommends that international cruises can restart – for the first time since the pandemic struck – in line with other international travel.

However, the report also warns: “This will be subject to continued satisfactory evidence from domestic restart as well as successful cruise operations elsewhere in the world.”

It will also be considered at each of the three reviews on June 28, July 1 and October 1.

There will also be a “memorandum of understanding” between the UK government and cruise firms on the cost and liabilities if things go wrong.

Will I get my money back if things go wrong?

This is a big question mark and depends on a huge range of things – your type of travel, Foreign Office advice and insurance.

The government is seeking to publish a new “Covid-19 charter” for passengers which sets out consumers’ rights more clearly.

“We expect the industry to be flexible in recognition of the impact the pandemic has on consumers’ bookings,” the report says.

“The UK government will also build consumer confidence and develop trust in booking travel by putting further measures in place to ensure their money is safe in case bookings are cancelled wherever possible.”

The report doesn’t say what these measures will be.

What about Covid passports?

They may play a role for travel into the UK when this system eventually fades.

Currently the UK is developing passports to show if you’ve had a vaccine, test, antibodies or all three.

So far the plan has been to use these to show to foreign governments, and/or to go to big events within the UK.

However, the report indicates they could eventually be used to certify people coming back into the UK as well.

It’s not spelt out but it seems possible that vaccine status could eventually replace the complex testing regime for some people.

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