Boris Johnson has hinted that plans for tougher travel restrictions on popular holiday destinations could be ditched, as he said he wanted a simple approach to quarantining on return from abroad.
The prime minister has been under pressure from cabinet ministers and the travel industry to simplify the rules, after it was rumoured that a new category of “amber watchlist” could be created in England to warn travellers that a destination was on the brink of being put on the “red list”.
Fears that popular destinations such as Spain, Greece and Italy could be put into the new “amber watchlist” category prompted a backlash among Tories, as tourists planning trips to those countries would be in limbo over whether they were soon to be subject to “red list” rules. Anyone entering the UK from a red-listed country must spend a period in hotel quarantine, at their own cost.
Ministers are due to take a decision on whether to create the new amber watchlist after getting analysis on international cases from the Joint Biosecurity Centre this week.
However, Johnson appeared to suggest the government was backing away from the idea. Speaking on a visit to Airbus in Stevenage, Johnson said: “On travel, we have had to balance it because of the anxiety that I think a lot of people have – I have – about importing new variants, bringing back the disease.
“We also have to recognise that people want, badly, to go on their summer holidays, we need to get the travel industry moving again, we need to get our city centres open again and so we want an approach that is as simple as we can possibly make it.”
Just hours earlier, a government minister was defending the proposals for an amber watchlist, as Labour warned it would merely add to the confusion over which countries were safe to visit during the summer holidays.
Matt Warman, the minister for digital infrastructure, said the travel watchlist for England would provide people with more information so they could make “informed decisions”.
Speaking on Sky News on Monday, Warman said: “The point of the watchlist that you refer to is to try and give people a sense of the direction of travel that a country is going in, it’s to try and provide people with as much information as possible when they make those decisions about where they might want to go on holiday.
“Of course it is … great news to be opening up, that people who are coming back from amber-list countries don’t need to be quarantining, that’s a good sign of the direction that this country is going in thanks to the vaccination programme, but we do have to bear in mind that other countries are in a range of other positions.”
Responding to Warman’s comments, Anneliese Dodds, the Labour party chair, told Sky it appeared the government was again in “disarray” over the traffic-light system. She called on the government to be transparent about the data it uses to make decisions on foreign travel.
She told Times Radio: “We don’t want to see additional confusion and chaos here … We’ve been here before, we’ve been in this chaos before, and yet government seems to be providing just more of the same, more confusion, more extra categories.
“What we’ve said for months as the Labour party is that the Conservative government need to be open and transparent, they need to be actually publishing the data that they’re taking their decisions on.
“They need to be also seeking that agreement around vaccine passports internationally that they’ve said they’re trying to do, but we’ve seen no evidence of progress there.
“If there’s more openness, I think that’s going to build trust in the system.
“The problem is, right now holidaymakers just don’t know who to believe and [we] … seem to have the chancellor briefing against the prime minister in the Sunday papers. That’s not building confidence, ultimately, in the system.”
Pressure has been building on Johnson to redraw restrictions on foreign travel, with Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, writing to the prime minister to demand changes to the UK quarantine policy.
In the letter, seen by the Sunday Times, Sunak said UK border policy was “out of step with our international competitors”. He said there was little time to save the summer for tourism and hospitality sectors.
Also on Monday morning, the chief executive of Heathrow airport told the British government to make travel rules simple and called for restrictions on travellers from France to be eased.
“We just need to keep it simple,” John Holland-Kaye told Sky when asked about reports Britain may warn tourists against travel to Spain. He said the green list of countries, from which travellers do not have to self-isolate, should be expanded.