Government U-turns over amber watchlist – after Boris Johnson says rules should stay as ‘simple as possible’

·5-min read

Ministers have abandoned plans to add a new “amber watchlist” category to the UK’s Covid travel rules, after Boris Johnson said the traffic light system should stay “as simple as possible”.

The government has been considering a new category to let travellers know which amber-list countries are at risk of turning red, but the idea sparked backlash from the travel industry and MPs.

Junior government minister Matt Warman defended the idea as recently as Monday morning – claiming that a move away from three “cut and dried” categories to a wider “spectrum” need not be complicated or confusing.

However, the prime minister later appeared to pour cold water on the plan, insisting that he wanted a “user-friendly” system of rules in a bid to help “get the travel industry moving again”.

Asked whether he backed the idea of an amber watchlist, Mr Johnson told reporters: “I understand that people care very much about their holidays, people want to go abroad, I understand how much people plan, prepare, for the summer holidays.”

Arguing that a “balanced approach” to travel restrictions was needed to stop variants coming into the UK, the prime minister added: “What I want to see is something that is as simple and as user-friendly for people as possible.”

Shortly after his comments, government sources confirmed that there would be “no amber watchlist” – following a backlash from Tory MPs, ministerial jitters and complaints from the travel industry.

Tory MP Henry Smith, the chairman of the all-party Future of Aviation Group, was among those to have urged the government to rule the amber watchlist idea out completely – saying it would turn the traffic light system into a confusing “rainbow” and dampen bookings for the hard-hit travel industry.

Labour Party chairwoman Anneliese Dodds had also warned against “additional confusion and chaos” by adding another new category to the system, following last month’s decision to put France in a specially created “amber-plus” category.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps was understood to have been against the amber watchlist idea, while chancellor Rishi Sunak reportedly told the prime minister that the UK’s travel restrictions are “out of step with our international competitors” and are hurting the economy.

Simon Calder, The Independent’s travel expert, said many industry figures had expected the floated amber watchlist idea to be an “empty threat” aimed at dampening bookings to places with high Covid case rates such as Spain.

Ministers are due to meet on Thursday to examine the latest data and decide on travel rules for most of August, including huge decisions on whether to change the status of both Spain and France.

Analysts told The Independent that Spain could be the next country to go on the amber-plus list, which means passengers are still required to quarantine for 10 days at their own accommodation – despite the relaxation of rules for journeys from elsewhere in the EU.

However, France is now widely expected to be moved from amber plus back onto the government’s amber list, following the heated row with the French government over the prevalence of the Beta variant in the country.

Tim White, an independent data analyst, said: “The government will not admit that it made a mistake on France, but the number of Beta variant cases in France was very low. It’s bound to come off the amber plus list this week.”

The expert added: “If the categories stay exactly as they are now, then mainland Spain and possibly mainland Greece should really be moved to amber plus. They have far higher Covid incidences on the mainland than France ever did.”

Virginia Messina, acting chief executive at the World Travel and Tourism Council said thousands of British holidaymakers would be “hugely disappointed” if Spain was placed on the amber plus list. “As Spain is the number one holiday destination for Brits, this move could cause chaos and seriously jeopardise the recovery of the UK travel and tourism sector,” she said.

Tim Alderslade, chief executive of trade body Airlines UK, said the recent decision to set up a special category for France last month meant “people now think with amber there is a good chance ... that they will be stranded, and that is a real dampener in terms of bookings”.

The airline chief told Times Radio: “We’ve now only got six to eight weeks until the end of the summer, and tens of thousands of jobs are under threat in the travel and aviation sector.”

Mr Alderslade said the key to kickstarting the travel industry was to expand the green list. “But we’ve somehow got to find a way of using the vaccine dividend that we built up … to try to get more countries on that green list.”

Austria, Germany, Poland and Canada are among the 12 destinations that could be bumped up from amber to green on Thursday, according to research by travel consultancy The PC Agency.

The research found a dozen countries that could go green thanks to Covid rates below 30 cases per 100,000 residents and vaccination rollouts: Austria, Bosnia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Paul Charles, chief executive of The PC Agency, had joined calls for ministers to ditch the amber watchlist idea, saying it would unnecessarily complicate the traffic light system. “Just create a simple go and no-go list, as Americans have, enabling the fully-jabbed to travel at will. It’s not rocket science.”

Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye encouraged the government to expand the number of countries of the green, and also urged the government to drop the requirement for travellers to have a PCR test and replace it with a cheaper, simpler lateral flow test.

Meanwhile, US Travel Association president Roger Dow said the White House is being “too cautious” with restrictions on travel from the UK.

Mr Dow said the UK government had been “very wise” to remove quarantine requirements for fully vaccinated US arrivals, and urged Joe Biden’s administration to open up to British travellers. “It’s time for the US to reciprocate. It’s time to bring back the economy of both countries.”

Additional reporting by PA

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