European and American vaccines now recognised for travel to UK: how it works

·7 min read
Crossing frontiers: the EU’s digital pass (European Union)
Crossing frontiers: the EU’s digital pass (European Union)

Six months after some European Union countries announced they would accept UK jabs in lieu of testing or quarantine, ministers have decided to extend the courtesy to arriving EU and US citizens who can prove they have been vaccinated.

The plan to allow overseas visitors – and UK expatriates vaccinated abroad – to avoid self-isolation on entry from amber list countries initially applies for England.

These are the key questions and answers.

Need a reminder of the current rules?

Each foreign country (or sometimes individual regions) are placed into one of six categories that decide how travellers are treated on arrival to the UK.

Ireland has been in a super green category of its own since the coronavirus pandemic began, with neither testing nor quarantine required for arrivals from the republic to the four nations.

From the green list – comprising Bulgaria, Gibraltar, Iceland, Malta and others – there is no need to self-isolate, but a test before flying to the UK and another after arrival are still required.

Croatia and the Portuguese island of Madeira are on the green watchlist, giving them quarantine-free status but with the caveat that they could be downgraded at short notice.

At the other end of the scale, travellers coming in from high-risk countries on the red list must go into 11 nights of hotel quarantine at their expense. Nations include India, the UAE, Turkey, South Africa and every country in South America.

France is alone on a special amber plus list, from which all arrivals must quarantine. This is because of the prevalence of the Beta variant of coronavirus on the island of Réunion.

A large majority of countries – more than 150 – are on the amber list, which is the target of the latest change.

At present travellers who happen to have been vaccinated by the NHS (or who are on a formally approved UK vaccine clinical trial) avoid quarantine. But those whose jabs were administered abroad must self-isolate.

This led to the ridiculous situation whereby a UK resident flying from Spain to Manchester who has been fully jabbed by the NHS need not self-isolate, while a British expatriate sitting in the adjacent seat who has had exactly the same vaccinations on the same dates must quarantine for 10 days.

What will change?

From 4am Monday 2 August, travellers to England, Wales and Scotland who have proof of vaccination in the European Union or the US, with a further two weeks for the jabs to take effect, will be able to avoid quarantine. They will be treated the same as people who have been fully jabbed by the NHS.

The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, tweeted: “We're helping reunite people living in the US and European countries with their family and friends in the UK

They must provide a “test to fly” before being allowed to travel to the UK, and must also prebook a PCR test for after their arrival.

Besides the European Union, this also covers the countries of Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland as well as the microstates of Andorra, Monaco and Vatican City.

It does not apply to trips from France, which is sitting on its own in the amber plus category. The Department for Transport (DfT) says: “Separate rules will continue to apply for those arriving from France. This will also apply if other countries are added to amber plus.

What jabs and proof will be required?

The UK will accept vaccinations approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and Swissmedic.

The FDA list comprises Johnson & Johnson (Janssen), Pfizer BioNTech and Moderna.

The EMA authorises these three vaccines and also AstraZeneca, also known as Vaxzevria.

Swissmedic has so far authorised Pfizer BioNTech and Moderna

For arrivals from the EU and other European nations, proof should be straightforward, thanks to the fully tested, multinational European digital Covid pass which is linked to health authorities in the holder’s country of residence.

For arrivals from the US, the required documentation is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s white card – known as a CDC card. Travellers must also produce proof of residence in the US.

What do the other UK nations say about it?

The Scottish government called the move “a major relaxation of travel restrictions that were imposed to protect wider public health in Scotland”. The transport secretary, Michael Matheson, said it provided “a boost for the tourism sector and wider economy while ensuring public health is protected”.

Wales’s first minister, Mark Drakeford, said the common border with England made a separate policy impractical, but told the BBC: “It’s very important that the UK government is able to offer assurances. .. that the proper precautions are in place to continue to defend the population of the United Kingdom.”

Why weren’t foreign vaccinations recognised earlier?

The UK government was in no hurry to recognise jabs administered overseas. Ministers indicated that they wanted to get the scheme running swiftly for UK residents, and that only NHS jabs could easily be verified.

But since the “jab or quarantine” system started working, almost all the checking has been taking place at airports abroad – making a nonsense of claims that it is difficult to verify foreign vaccinations.

The unacceptability of perfectly sound foreign jabs was damaging for families hoping to be able to reconnect, and an announcement by the vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi, clouded the issue by saying British expatriates vaccinated abroad could claim exemption for overseas jabs by speaking to their GP – even though UK citizens resident abroad do not have GPs.

The refusal to allow vaccinated foreign residents to avoid quarantine also sent out a signal that the UK is closed for inbound tourism for the summer.

Will the courtesy be reciprocated?

Already NHS proof of vaccination is accepted in more than 30 countries worldwide as a way of demonstrating a low risk profile. Each European Union takes its own decisions on who to admit and what proof is required.

Across the Atlantic, Joe Biden has made it clear he is in no rush to remove the presidential proclamation that bans non-Americans who have been, in the past 14 days, in the UK (and the rest of Europe).

But recognising US-administered vaccines or, even better, placing some or all of the United States on the green list would at least make life easier for Americans and would benefit the UK economy.

What does the travel industry think?

“This policy should have been adopted months ago,” said Julia Lo Bue-Said, chief executive, Advantage Travel Partnership. Other senior figures regard it as “too little, too late” to save the summer season, but in public they are more supportive.

Sean Doyle, British Airways chairman and chief executive, said: “With the UK’s Covid cases falling while vaccinations continue to rise, now is the time for the government to help secure the reopening of the crucial UK-US travel corridor, move more low-risk amber countries to the green list to allow customers to book with confidence and to review the current expensive testing requirements that are out of step with our neighbours.”

His counterpart at rival Virgin Atlantic, Shai Weiss, said: “The UK is already falling behind US and EU and a continued overly cautious approach towards international travel will further impact economic recovery and the 500,000 UK jobs that are at stake.”

Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, said: “This is still nowhere near the summer season passengers were hoping for, and we remain the only sector that is not allowed to trade on a pre-pandemic basis. But today is a positive step that should pave the way for a return to unrestricted travel in the future.”

The pilots’ union, the British Airline Pilots’ Association (Balpa), was less enthusiastic. The acting general secretary, Martin Chalk, said: “We are halfway through the only profitable part of the year – summer – and UK travellers still face huge restrictions in the countries that will allow us in, preventing a real recovery.”

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