People arriving in England from more than 50 countries including France, Spain, Germany and Italy will no longer need to quarantine from 10 July, the Department for Transport has confirmed.
A full list of exempt countries posing “a reduced risk” from coronavirus will be published later.
Most travellers to the UK currently have to self-isolate for two weeks.
The Foreign Office is also changing its blanket advice against all non-essential foreign travel from Saturday.
The quarantine restrictions only came into force in early June, in a bid to stop coronavirus entering the country at a time when UK infections were falling.
The new exemptions mean people arriving from selected countries will be able to enter England without needing to self-isolate, unless they have been in or travelled through non-exempt countries in the preceding 14 days.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told the BBC the full list of “50 plus” exempt countries would be published on Friday afternoon.
He said countries on the list would be labelled as either amber or green, in line with a traffic-light system based on their prevalence of coronavirus.
All amber countries – including France, Germany, Italy and Spain – would have “reciprocal arrangements” in place, meaning travellers from the UK will not have to quarantine on arrival there either, Mr Shapps said.
There would also be a red list of countries, including the US, for which restrictions would remain in place, Mr Shapps said.
And countries categorised as green, which have “very low” levels of coronavirus, would have restrictions for UK arrivals, he said.
“I take New Zealand as a good example. They do have restrictions when you arrive, but we thought it was right to include them [on the UK’s list of exempt countries] because people may want to come here from New Zealand, and that’s no particular threat to our hard-won gains that everyone’s been going through, staying at home,” he said.
He said Greece would not be on the amber list to begin with, because the country was currently not allowing flights from the UK.
Countries that will be either on the green or amber list include some of the UK’s overseas territories such as Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, Mr Shapps said, as well as smaller states such as the Vatican.
‘Hope’ devolved nations will follow
Mr Shapps said he had “held off” from his announcement in the hope that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would reach a decision at the same time as England and there was “still an opportunity” for them to co-ordinate ahead of the changes coming into effect on 10 July.
“I very much hope that we can do this as four nations at the same time – I think it would just simplify it for people a great deal – but they will need to make that decision themselves,” he said.
The Scottish and Welsh governments have not yet decided whether to ease restrictions on international travel, while in Northern Ireland, quarantine regulations remain in place for people arriving from outside the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
A Scottish minister said he was given 30 minutes to make a decision about potential air bridges on Wednesday, and that it was “disappointing” the four nations had not finalised plans together.
Scotland First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said her government needed more time to analyse the proposals “properly and rationally”.
“We can’t allow ourselves to be dragged along in the wake of another government’s, to be quite frank about it, shambolic decision-making process,” she said at her daily coronavirus press briefing.
Ministers have been under pressure to ease quarantine measures because of the impact on the travel industry.
The Department for Transport said a risk assessment had been conducted by the Joint Biosecurity Centre, in close consultation with Public Health England and the chief medical officer.
It considered factors including the prevalence of the virus, the numbers of new cases and potential trajectory of the disease in that destination, the department said.
The list of exempted countries would be kept “under constant review”, so that if the health risks increase, self-isolation measures could be re-introduced, the DfT added.
Mr Shapps said people who were currently quarantining because of returning from one of the green or amber countries would be able to end their isolation period on 10 July.
Meanwhile, the Foreign Office will set out exemptions for a number of destinations from its current advice against non-essential international travel, which has been in place since 17 March.
Mr Shapps said the move marked “the next step in carefully reopening our great nation”.
Foreign holidays ‘now safe’
All passengers, except those on a small list of exemptions, will still be required to provide contact information on arrival in the UK, including details of countries or territories they have been in or through during the previous 14 days.
A spokesman for trade association Airlines UK said the announcement was “very welcome” and meant airlines would “be able to re-start services to many key markets in time for peak summer travel”.
“Whilst it’s welcome the government has removed its blanket ban we would encourage rigour and science is applied in all future decisions surrounding our businesses,” he said.
The CEO of Gatwick Airport, Stewart Wingate, said halting quarantine sent “a very clear message that it is now safe to take summer holidays abroad”.
“The aviation industry has a long way to go to in its recovery from this pandemic. However, today’s news will hopefully mark the start of a turning point,” he added.
Anyone who gets coronavirus symptoms at the time they are booked to go away is highly unlikely to get their money back when they cancel their holiday, our personal finance reporter says.
The quarantine policy has been criticised by some Conservative MPs, including former transport minister Theresa Villiers.
She said it had damaged the travel industry without reducing the risk from coronavirus.
Asked about jobs already lost in the hospitality and aviation industries – in part as a result of the restrictions on international travel – Mr Shapps said: “The question I suppose everybody would have to ask is where is the right balance between making sure that we put lives first but also protect livelihoods. And this is not an easy balance.”
The announcement came as the prime minister urged people to behave responsibly, ahead of businesses including pubs, restaurants, hairdressers and cinemas reopening in England on Saturday.
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