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Travel traffic light system Q&A – where and when can I go on holiday abroad?

How green, red and amber ratings work from 17 May

Travel traffic light system Q&A – where and when can I go on holiday abroad?

The government has said that travellers returning from green list countries under its traffic light system this summer will still need to pay for tests. Previous Which? research has found private test requirements add hundreds of pounds to the cost of a trip.

From 17 May the government plans to operate a traffic light system of red, amber and green for all countries. That date remains dependent on health data, and is the earliest international travel can resume. When the traffic light system is launched the current ban on non-essential travel will be removed.

Countries will be assigned to different colours based on a range of Covid-19 health metrics, including vaccination numbers and infection rates. Variants and the ability of the country to identify variants will also be considered.

The different traffic light colours will detail the risk in each country, but also the tests and quarantine periods required.

Travellers returning from green list countries will need to take a pre-departure test and a PCR test on or before day two of their return, but there is no requirement to quarantine. Arrivals from amber countries will need to quarantine at home for ten days, in addition to tests, while arrivals from red countries must quarantine for ten days in government managed hotel quarantine.


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Like with last year’s travel corridors, the government has confirmed countries will be moved in and out of different colours in the traffic lights. This system caused significant disruption last summer when travellers cut holidays short and rushed home to try and beat the introduction of quarantine.

To reduce the risk of disruption the government is introducing a ‘Green Watchlist’. It says this will help identify the countries at risk of moving from green to amber, although there are no details on how it will work. It also warns it will not ‘hesitate to act immediately should data show countries risk rating have changed’.

It means further disruption to travel plans this summer are likely. Increasing vaccination rates mean the frequency of those changes should be less than last year, although the risks are far greater. If you’re in a country when it is added to the red list, you may need to pay for a flight to get home before the change takes place (with airfares likely to be very high) or return as normal and pay for hotel quarantine.

You’ll also need to factor in the cost of tests, which will be required even for travel to and from green list countries. This is likely to add hundreds of pounds to the cost of your trip.

How will the government decide which countries go on the green list?

The government has not detailed all of the data it will assess, or what numbers will determine a country’s green, amber or red status. It has said that vaccination numbers, vaccination rates, the prevalence of variants and the country’s ability to identify those variants will be key factors in rating countries.

Until the government makes public all the data it considers and what the ranges are for placing countries in red, amber or green it’s impossible to be certain which countries will be placed in a category.

Which countries are on the green list?

We don’t know yet. The list should be announced a week or two ahead of the 17 May target date when travel can resume. 

Can I take a holiday to green listed countries? What tests are needed?

Yes. You will need to take a pre-departure test as well as a PCR test on or before day two of your arrival back into the UK. That is going to cost around £150 and £200, depending on which country you take the pre-departure test in. The country you are travelling to may also require a test, further adding to the cost.  The EU has suggested those who have been vaccinated, and can provide evidence of this, won’t need to take a test. 

For green list countries, there is no quarantine required on your return to the UK unless you test positive.

Can I take a holiday to amber listed countries? What tests are needed?

You can, but with strings attached.  You will need to quarantine for a period of ten days at home on your return to the UK and take a pre-departure test, a PCR test on day two and day eight. Alternately, you can pay for an additional Test to Release test on day five to end self-isolation early

Can I take a holiday to red listed countries? What tests are needed?

Travel is likely to permitted, but will be expensive. You will need to pay for a 10-day stay at government managed quarantine hotel – that currently costs £1750. You will also have to pay for pre-departure testing and PCR testing on day two and eight. 

Should I book a holiday?

We don’t yet know where we can go, or when. While you can almost always get a refund if your package holiday is subsequently cancelled because restrictions haven’t lifted, some companies are still dragging their feet and making refunds difficult. Flight-only bookings are far harder to get refunds for, even if you can’t fly.

It would be sensible to wait until the government announces the green list before booking. While it is possible to track countries that are likely to be added to the green list, such as Israel, Malta and other countries with high vaccination rates; this remains speculation. Agreements will still need to made on areas such as acceptable tests and evidence of vaccination.

We also don’t know how the ‘Green Watchlist’ will work. Until you do, you should only book if you are willing and able to spend 10 days in quarantine and pay for additional tests if your country is turned from green to amber while you’re aboard.

Vaccination passports and tests for traffic lights

Several countries have already indicated that they will allow those who have been vaccinated to enter for holidays. The government has confirmed that it is planning a solution to provide health certifications for travel. It also said it is working with other countries to establish mutual recognition, which should include the EU’s digital green certificate.

Travellers will be responsible for making sure they have evidence of vaccination before travel. If for any reason you don’t, you’ll be liable for any additional test costs that are required.

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