Ministers are considering a “traffic light” system for foreign travel making it easier for Brits to holiday in lower risk “green” areas.
Popular holiday destinations with lower Covid rates and higher vaccination roll-out could be reopened to British tourists sooner this summer.
Under the tiered system, passengers could be exempt from pre-departure tests and quarantine on their return.
But those flying to higher risk “red” countries could face tough restrictions including a 10-day self-isolation period and extra Covid tests after their break.
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Government sources confirmed officials were considering the traffic light scheme, which would be subject to change as infection rates rise or fall.
However, they warned it was “quite early days” and suggested the priority would be to reopen the UK economy.
The proposed blueprint comes amid fears millions of us will be forced to stay at home as a third wave of the virus rages across Europe.
Ministers warned it would be “premature” to book summer breaks as soaring rates in countries including France and Poland raise the likelihood of vaccine-resistant strains.
Cabinet minister Ben Wallace said of booking breaks: “It would be premature to do that. It’d be potentially risky, we are seeing growing variants. We are not going to do anything that puts at risk this national effort on the pandemic. Let’s take it step by step.”
The Defence Secretary also warned the EU not to “build walls” around the distribution of vaccines amid an escalating war of words. There are concerns the UK’s vaccines roll-out could be delayed for weeks if the EU presses ahead with a threat to ban exports.
The Department of Health is today launching trials of new tests which can spot new Covid mutations quickly.
The technology, called genotype assay testing, halves the time it currently takes to identify if a positive Covid sample contains a variant of concern.
Those affected could be notified within two days rather than four or five, helping to break the chains of transmission.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “This testing will help us rapidly identify variant cases and trace contacts quicker than ever before, helping stop outbreaks in their tracks and ensuring we can continue to follow the roadmap we’ve set out.”
A leading member of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine team has warned that the biggest risk to the UK is the South Africa strain raging across Europe.
The mutation, which could impact on the effectiveness of vaccines, is thought to make up between 5% and 10% of cases in France, which has low jab rates.
Oxford University’s Sir John Bell said Europe’s “hopeless” response to Covid-19 risks the South African strain “flooding in the back door” when travel restarts.
A Government task force is due to report on April 12 on how and when international travel could resume.
Under the current roadmap for lifting restrictions, the earliest date people in England could holiday abroad would be May 17.
Government sources suggested No 10 was willing to sacrifice holidays abroad to protect domestic reopening.
They claimed ministers were “increasingly sceptical” about travel restrictions ending in May, with even early summer holidays looking unlikely.
Mr Hancock is said to have privately confided his growing pessimism about foreign trips resuming after May 17.
“We can’t allow the good work that has been done by the vaccine roll-out being undone by unlocking too quickly or filing to secure our borders. We’ve seen what happened in the past.”
Government insiders said there would have to be more support for the beleaguered travel and airline industries.
Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel, said: “Government warnings about future international travel are a reminder it’s still too early to book a flight or holiday.
“You should wait until the travel taskforce reports on next steps.”
The number of daily vaccine doses administered in the UK hit a record high for a third consecutive day. A total of 844,285 first and second doses were given on Saturday, up from 711,157 on Friday.
More than 27.6 million people in the UK,have now received at least one dose.
Face coverings and social distancing could be required for several years, a leading epidemiologist has predicted.
Dr Mary Ramsay, the head of immunisation at Public Health England, said the measures could be in place until other countries successfully roll out jabs.