The government has announced plans to enforce a new ‘traffic light’ system to aid in the speedy return of international travel. But what does it mean for holidays and where can you go?

a traffic light shows a red and green light

The government’s new Traffic Light System is being used to plot a safe route back to international travel

Back at the end of March Boris Johnson announced the roadmap to a safe return to international travel would become clearer from mid-April. Now his government have announced a traffic light system to plot the return to foreign journeys and which countries you can travel to on the ‘green list’.

But before we get into it, it’s important to state that the government are confident we’re still on track for that 17 May international travel return date originally outlined when the Prime Minister first announced the easing of restrictions at his March roadmap press conference.

So, first things first… where can you go?


Which countries are on each list?

Well, in truth, not as many as we first thought would be. European tourism powerhouses like Spain, Greece and Italy haven’t made the list. However, Portugal, the Azores and Madeira have which does open the door to a potential European getaway this summer. Some eyebrow-raising additions to the green list were the South Sandwich Islands, Ascension Island, and Tristan Da Cunha.

As we have seen throughout the government’s process of unlocking, the desire for cautious action rather than wholesale change has won out. This careful approach has meant that 40 countries across the world now find themselves on the UK’s red list.

It’s understood that, essentially, any other country which isn’t placed on the green or red lists will be on the amber list.


Find out definitively, which countries have made it on to the Red, Amber, and Green Lists now. 

But what is the traffic light system?

So now you know where you can go, what does it mean when you want to go away? And do you have to quarantine on your return to the UK?

People returning from countries on the ‘Green’ list will need to:

  • Take a pre-departure test
  • Get a PCR test on or before day two of your arrival back in the UK
  • There’s no need for quarantine – unless in the case of a positive test result
  • Tests must be booked through a government-approved provider, before travelling

If you’re returning from a country on the ‘Amber’ list you’ll need to:

  • Take a pre-departure test
  • Quarantine for 10 days on return to the UK
  • Take a PCR test on day two and day eight of your arrival back in the UK
  • Option to cut short quarantine period with the use of the Test to Release scheme
  • Tests must be booked through a government-approved provider before travelling

If you’re returning from a country in the ‘Red’ list you’ll need to:

  • Take a pre-departure test
  • Quarantine for ten days at a managed quarantine hotel
  • Take a PCR test on day two and day eight of your arrival back in the UK
  • No option to cut short quarantine
  • You must book and pay for a government-approved quarantine package before travelling

The government have also confirmed they will keep a constant watch on the status of countries and a statement on changes to catergorisation in the system will be made every three weeks. A ‘Green watchlist’ will also be created. Which will identify countries most at risk of moving from green to amber.

The next review on country categorisation is expected on 28 May. So that’s potentially when we could start to see places like France, Spain, Italy and Greece move on to the green list.

Other developments coming out of the update have seen the scrapping of Permission to Travel forms, so you’ll no longer be slapped with a £5,000 fine for travelling without a valid reason, when we’re allowed to fly again. As well as plans to digitise the current Passenger Locator Form, “enabling checks to take place at e-gates by autumn 2021”.

So can you actually go to places on the amber and red list?


What happens if I want to travel to a country on the Red or Amber lists?

Okay, so here’s the important bit. We know where we can go and what we have to do when we travel to those destinations. But there is slightly more to unpack when it comes to travelling to Amber and Red listed countries.

While the fining systems have been scrapped the government are still not happy with us travelling to Amber and Red list destinations. However, the government being “not happy” with people heading to those destinations doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t go.

Many holiday firms are still offering flights to amber listed countries, and will continue to do so. So it’s basically been left up to the Great British public to decide whether they want to travel to these destinations or not. It’s a similar situation to when travel to Greece wasn’t advised last summer, but it was still available for those who wanted it.

If the country you’re visiting goes from amber to green while you’re there (or vice versa) then you will need to follow the advice for return travel in the colour category your current destination has changed to. For example, if it’s turned green then follow the green advice.

Ultimately, if you’re not sure what to do you can check the FCDO foreign travel advice for more info on what the government are saying.


How do they determine which country will be in which category?

Following the announcement of the categorisation, Mr Johnson’s team also recently confirmed how they’ll position each country.

In order to determine which country sits where the government will take into account four points:

  1. The percentage of the country’s population to have been vaccinated
  2. Rate of infection
  3. Prevalence of variants of concern
  4. The country’s access to reliable scientific data and genomic sequencing.

As we’ve said, the government are constantly monitoring the situations with regards to the countries on each list. Categorisation will be reviewed again on 28 May and there will be a further larger announcement on 28 June to determine whether they’ve been successful in allowing international travel to return without jeopardising the UK’s safety. There’s also the inclusion of two further ‘checkpoints’ on 31 July and 1 October.

Boris Johnson announced new Coronavirus restrictions recently

Mr Johnson has confirmed the UK are on course to hit the 17 May deadline for a return to international travel. Image: Flickr: Pippa Fowler


But who’s making the decisions?

After all these exciting global travel announcements you may be wondering who, in the government, has been tasked with creating this system?

These latest announcements have come from the government’s Global Travel Taskforce. Boris Johnson originally set up the Taskforce back in October to plot a safe route back to international travel normality.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps is at the head of the Taskforce and has been the person announcing the recent updates.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has been heading up the government's Global Travel Taskforce

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has been heading up the government’s Global Travel Taskforce. Image Credit: Number 10 Flickr


So, is everyone happy now?

In a word, no. Travel companies have criticised the country catergorisation stating as they believe the government are being overly cautious. The plans have also come under scrutiny from rival parties who say this system is again ambiguous at best, as well as the need for PCR testing only allowing global movement to those who can afford it. PCR tests are adding to the costs of travel – sometimes to the tune of £100 per person.

There are those who’ll be happy to see Portugal and areas like Madeira & the Azores on the green list for their family holiday. But many will have been hoping to see other European, and maybe some Caribbean, countries appear on that list too.

However, Mr Shapps has again confirmed his team are constantly looking at the COVID-19 numbers abroad (hence that 28 May date) as well as viable ways to drive down the cost testing to allow more access to foreign travel.

Man relaxes in an airport terminal look out of the window at planes parked

The travel industry has criticised the latest government updates


Cheaper testing

The issue surrounding the cost of testing comes from the government’s belief that PCR tests are the “gold-standard” of COVID tests.

Although Mr Schapps said about the cost of testing: “I think they are too expensive and it may be that there needs to be more entrants in the market, and we’ll be taking a very close look at that,”

He has also confirmed the government are looking at the possibility of providing free Lateral Flow Tests to combat this issue.

A COVID PCR test is examined in a lab

PCR tests are considered to be the “gold-standard” because they’re examined in a lab


In conclusion

As we said, there is plenty to unpack when it comes to the plans to reopen the UK.

But opening the borders to a country surrounded by others hurtling into lockdowns left, right, and centre was never going to be straight forward.

However, travel industry insiders are bound to be upset again with a lack of big tourism countries appearing on the UK’s green list. While the government have said they will continue to monitor the situations abroad, we now wait with bated breath to see what 28 May brings.

So, for now, enjoy Portugal!