Overseas holidays will be given the green light from early next month, with the government expected to suspend the 14-day quarantine period for a series of countries and also to set up so-called air bridge arrangements for overseas destinations.
While the full list of countries involved is still being confirmed, the initial phase of travel opening up is expected to involve European nations including France, Greece, Spain and possibly Portugal, with other potentially more distant locations to follow.
At the same time, the current Foreign Office travel warning against all but essential international travel will be lifted for countries deemed safe.
The list of approved countries is due to be announced around the middle of next week, with people allowed to start travelling from the following week, starting 6 July. Before then the government hopes to reach agreements on mutual travel routes with the nations involved.
The list of permitted destinations will remain fluid, with what is described as a “strict handbrake mechanism”, meaning any sudden outbreak of coronavirus in certain countries – or even in particular parts of a country – could require travellers unexpectedly to isolate for two weeks when they return to the UK.
The initial list of safe countries has been drawn up by the government’s Joint Biosecurity Centre, working with Public Health England, with nations ranked as green, amber and red based on the risk from Covid-19, the trajectory of the virus’s spread, and an assessment of the reliability of data. People will be able to travel freely to both green and amber countries.
Speaking on BBC Breakfast on Saturday morning, the Greek tourism minister, Haris Theocharis, suggested it could be up to three weeks before the country welcomed British holidaymakers.
“As soon as we have more clarity, we’ll be able to convey the right dates and the right message so that’s why it’s not easy for me to pinpoint exact dates,” he said. “I’m just giving you the feeling of the advice that we get from the experts currently.”
Also speaking on the programme, Patricia Yates, director of strategy and communications at VisitBritain, said holidays would “look very different” this year and warned people to be prepared for things to change.
She said there would be no buffet breakfasts, and that hotels would operate at reduced capacity.
“I love hotel buffet breakfasts [but] they are a thing of the past. And hotels will have to have social distancing so they won’t be opening at full occupancy and businesses will have to look at the sort of services they provide and really pruning those down to make sure that the infection control, that the cleansing regime, is right and that they can have social distancing,” she said.
“So I think, be prepared for some things not to look quite as you normally expect them.”
The decision to relax travel arrangements had been widely anticipated, due to pressure from Conservative MPs and the travel and aviation industries. It also means the policy under which all arrivals to the UK are forced to quarantine for 14 days will be in place for just three weeks.
Critics had said the blanket policy was delayed and largely pointless when many arrivals would be coming from countries with lower Covid-19 infection rates than the UK.
Since 8 June nearly all passengers have been required to go into self-isolation for 14 days at a declared address when they arrive in the UK. People who fail to comply can be fined £1,000 in England, and police are allowed to use “reasonable force” to make sure they follow the rules.
The International Consolidated Airlines Group (IAG) branded the blanket quarantine measures “illogical” and budget airline Ryanair labelled them “idiotic rubbish”.
The quarantine policy will stay in place for anyone coming from countries not deemed safe, and all passengers will still need to provide contact information when they arrive in the UK.
People will also be obliged by law to wear masks on planes, ferries and Eurostar trains, with travel terminals adapting their practices so travellers can physically distance.
A government spokeswoman said: “Our public health measures at the border were put in place to manage the risk of imported cases and help prevent a second wave of the virus, and will continue to support our fight against coronavirus.
“Our new risk-assessment system will enable us to carefully open a number of safe travel routes around the world – giving people the opportunity for a summer holiday abroad and boosting the UK economy through tourism and business. But we will not hesitate to put on the brakes if any risks re-emerge, and this system will enable us to take swift action to reintroduce self-isolation measures if new outbreaks occur overseas.”
The foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, has agreed that the blanket advice on non-essential international travel, imposed on 17 March, will be lifted for relevant countries from 6 July but it will be kept under review.
The news was welcomed by Huw Merriman, the Conservative MP who chairs the Commons transport select committee, and who has been an advocate for a system of air bridges.
“This welcome announcement indicates a move towards a more risk-based and nuanced approach,” he said. “It’s vital that the government uses all of the policy levers available to it in order to rescue the aviation sector and the jobs of those who depend on it.”
There was some uncertainty about how the system would work on a UK-wide basis, with discussions with the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland taking place on Friday. Before the announcement, there had been concern within the Scottish and Welsh governments about a lack of consultation on the issue, which requires agreement from all four nations.
One Welsh government source said before the announcement that communication with London had been “patchy”. The source said: “Each of the four nations has its own chief medical officer, and so anything coming from the UK government has to go through our own chief medical officer advice. We are willing to help but they are leaving it late.”
A UK government source said on Friday that all four devolved nations had signed up to the plan. However, a Scottish government spokesman said nothing had been decided: “No final decisions, including on the possibility of amending or adding to the exemptions, have been made and we await confirmation of a planned four-nation ministerial meeting ahead of any announcement being made.”