Fresh doubts over foreign holidays in early summer have emerged amid growing concerns that a third wave of Covid-19 in Europe could “wash up on our shores”.
Travel industry leaders demanded clarity as Boris Johnson gave the warning over rising virus rates on the continent, while a health minister suggested a ban on travel from all European countries.
Under draft laws published on Monday to implement the prime minister’s roadmap out of lockdown, leaving the UK without a “reasonable excuse” such as work or education will be illegal until June 30.
People who travel from England to another part of the UK with the aim of leaving the country, or who go to an airport trying to do so, face fines of £5,000 from Monday.
The penalty is included in legislation that will be voted on by MPs on Thursday.
However, officials stressed to The Times that the travel ban was being extended to June for legislative convenience, and does not pre-empt a review of foreign travel due next month.
A government source said the ban had been extended “to stop people travelling before May 17. It will interact with the government’s Global Travel Taskforce, which reports on April 12.”
Health secretary Matt Hancock insisted today that no changes had been made to England’s timings for resuming overseas travel.
“The earliest date by which we will allow international travel…is the 17th May. That has not changed,” he told Sky News.
And Hancock told the BBC he “entirely understands” people’s “yearning” for holidays abroad this summer.
International travel is already illegal in most circumstances under lockdown rules but the law is being tweaked for when the stay-at-home order lifts on March 29.
The government is considering a traffic-light system for overseas destinations.
But it is thought unlikely that many popular European holiday destinations would be declared ‘green’ until late summer because of the slow pace of vaccination in Europe.
Lord Bethell of Romford, a health minister, said: “We are all aware that the possibility lies that we will have to ‘red list’ all of our European neighbours”.
And social care minister Helen Whately became the latest politician to advise against booking summer holidays yet due to the situation in Europe and the risk of new Covid variants.
“I would say to people, just hold off,” she told the BBC, echoing defence secretary Ben Wallace’s assertion over the weekend that booking a holiday now would be “premature” and “potentially risky” as he refused to rule out a possible extension of the travel ban.
The comments came after Dr Mike Tildesley, of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling group, which feeds into Sage, said that overseas holidays this summer were “extremely” unlikely for the average holidaymaker.
This triggered a furious response from Aito, which wrote to Tildesley warning that his view on travel “unfortunately ignores the efforts and measures of specific countries to ensure travel opens safely, still two months away today”.
The doubts caused a fall in the shares of leading airlines and travel groups on Monday including British Airways owner IAG, Carnival Corporation, easyJet, Jet2, Ryanair, Saga and Tui.
BA confirmed that its network was being trimmed across Europe and UK domestic routes.
“We are sorry that, like other airlines, due to the current coronavirus pandemic and global travel restrictions, we are operating a reduced and dynamic schedule,” a spokesperson said.
England’s travel ban does not apply to those going to or from the Common Travel Area of the Channel Islands, Isle of Man and the Republic of Ireland unless that is not the final destination.
The government must provide clarity when the Travel Taskforce reports on April 12, urged Advantage Travel Partnership chief executive Julia Lo Bue-Said and Jet2 boss Steve Heapy.
Lo Bue-Said said: “The speculation over the weekend with regards to summer holidays not being possible this summer is damaging to the travel industry and consumer confidence, and serves no purpose until we see what is announced in the Global Travel Taskforce report.
“As we’ve already seen throughout the pandemic, a lot can happen in the space of a few months.”
She added: “While a traffic-light system may work in terms of highlighting which countries are safe to travel to, what we don’t want is countries coming on and off the list like last year.
“This causes confusion for travellers, dents consumer confidence for those who have booked trips and throws up huge operational challenges for travel agents and the travel industry.
“What we need in this Global Travel Taskforce report is clarity from the government to provide a criteria for countries that can be visited either based on vaccination numbers and/or transmission rates, so the industry and consumers can make informed decisions about their holiday choices.
“We also need any vaccine certification system to work hand in hand with testing for those who have not been vaccinated, and we would urge the government to take a lead on reducing the cost of testing so that future holidays are still affordable, especially for families.”
Responding to the prospect of a traffic light system, Jet2.com and Jet2holidays chief executive Heapy said: “From the demand that we are continuing to see, one thing remains abundantly clear – our customers very much want to get away on their holidays this summer and beyond.
“As the summer approaches, customers are now looking forward to clarity about how they can get away on their much-needed holidays, which they have waited a long time for.
“We once again welcome the fact that the UK government is continuing to show a clear ambition to reopen international travel, and, like our customers, we look forward to further detail in the coming weeks so that we can get flying again.”
Carl Heneghan, a professor of evidence-based medicine at Oxford University, told the Daily Mail: “We were allowed to go on holiday last summer, without a testing programme, and now we have got the vaccination programme and the testing programme.
“Given that, you have to ask the question, ‘What will it take if that’s not sufficient?'”