Ministers are expected to give the go-ahead for foreign travel from May 17. Countries will be categorised as green, amber or red, with varying levels of testing and quarantine required, based on their levels of Covid-19, vaccination roll-outs and ability to track variants.
Only a limited number of countries are expected to initially be classed as green, meaning people will not need to quarantine on their return to England.
However Ugur Sahin, head of pharmaceutical company BioNTech, which made the first widely-approved coronavirus vaccine with Pfizer, said Europe can achieve herd immunity against the disease within the next four months.
“Europe will reach herd immunity in July, latest by August,” he said. Just hours later, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi hailed figures from the Office for National Statistics which suggested that Britain is getting closer to herd immunity.
He told LBC Radio: “Almost 70 per cent of adults in England have now got antibodies. I tell you what’s amazing... and it really does fill me with pride is that the British people just get this and... they’re doing everything right at the moment. Let’s keep going, let’s do this together. I’m confident that by end of July, we’d have offered the vaccine to all adults, one dose at least and then we’ll continue going with the two doses and we’ll get there together and we’ll get our lives back.”
Concerns have been raised that existing vaccines might be less effective against new variants now emerging in different parts of the world.
However, Mr Sahin said BioNTech has tested its vaccine against more than 30 variants, including the now-dominant one first detected in Britain, and found that it triggers a good immune response against almost all of them in the laboratory. In cases where the immune response was weaker, it remained sufficient, he said, without providing exact figures. Asked about the new variant first detected in India, Mr Sahin said the vaccine’s effectiveness against it was still being investigated. “But the Indian variant has mutations that we have previously investigated and against which our vaccine also works, so I am confident there, too,” he said.
BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine, more widely known as the Pfizer jab, makes up a large share of the doses administered in Europe and the US.
Mr Sahin said data from people who have received it show that the immune response gets weaker over time, and a third shot will probably be required.
Studies show the efficacy of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine declines from 95 per cent to about 91 per cent after six months, the chief executive said.
“Accordingly, we need a third shot to get the vaccine protection back up to almost 100 per cent again,” added Mr Sahin.