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Nicola Sturgeon is set to announce that quarantine-free foreign travel will be allowed from Scotland within weeks, as she prepared to back down from a threat to ban overseas trips this summer.
The First Minister, who had previously warned that foreign summer holidays were “highly unlikely” this year due to the risk posed by Covid-19 variants, is likely to announce on Tuesday that Scotland will introduce a “traffic light” system similar to the approach being adopted in England.
This would mean those travelling to the lowest risk countries, which under the UK Government’s system include Portugal, Iceland and Australia, would not have to quarantine when they return.
While the Scottish Government insisted no final decision had been taken, The Daily Telegraph understands that discussions over a four nations agreement have been positive and that Ms Sturgeon’s officials have been reassured that risks can be managed. The BBC reported that the new rules were due to come into effect on May 24, a week later than in England.
The travel plan is expected to form part of a wider announcement on lockdown easing, with Ms Sturgeon to confirm that the next phase of relaxation will go ahead from Monday.
This will mean pubs and restaurants will be allowed to serve alcohol indoors, entertainment venues like cinemas and theatres will reopen and people from up to eight different households will be able to meet outdoors.
However, the First Minister has been urged to go further, with the success of the vaccination programme contributing to a drastic fall in virus cases and deaths. Only one coronavirus death has been reported in Scotland over the last 10 days, although harsher restrictions may remain in place in Moray following a local outbreak.
“With over 2.9 million Scots now having had their first dose of the vaccine, there is a clear case for safely easing restrictions more quickly,” a spokesman for the Scottish Tories said.
“The SNP’s anti-business approach to safely easing restrictions is stifling economic growth.”
The UK Government has been keen to secure a four-nations agreement on international travel, and behind-the-scenes talks have been ongoing between the chief medical officers in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Ms Sturgeon had previously said she was keen to agree a UK-wide approach if possible, but had raised concerns that the UK Government’s system went too far and risked the importation of variants that could prove resistant to vaccines.
In a live TV debate ahead of the Holyrood elections, she said that she could introduce a 'family reunions before holidays' approach, which would see those with relatives abroad permitted to travel but holidays restricted.
However, according to industry sources, Gregor Smith, Scotland’s chief medical officer, had agreed to a plan around criteria for how foreign countries would be classified.
This would take into account factors such as infection rates, vaccination rollout and the ability to detect new variants. Countries would be reviewed every four weeks, with announcements on which countries had changed status to be made around a week in advance.
Those travelling to amber countries, which currently include Spain, France, Italy and Greece, would have to self isolate at home for 10 days when they get back.
Only those coming back from high-risk red-list countries would have to pay to quarantine in a hotel. Currently, the requirement to pay £1,750 for hotel quarantine applies to all direct international arrivals into Scotland, except from Ireland.
While Dr Smith is understood to have signed off on the plan, based on advice from the UK’s Joint Biosecurity Centre, it is ultimately a decision for Ms Sturgeon over whether to agree to it.
Scottish Government insiders insisted that no final decision had been taken, but did not deny that adopting a traffic lights system was under active consideration.
While any easing of rules will be welcomed, some sources within the aviation sector expressed frustration that Ms Sturgeon had repeatedly indicated that she would take a far more cautious approach to overseas travel, causing airlines to favour English airports when planning where routes would resume first.
There was concern that had divergent rules been in force, Scots would simply book holidays from England to get around the rules.
Linda Hill, of LAH Travel in Ayrshire, told the BBC: "It is light at the end of the tunnel and as an industry we welcome this.
"I think consumer confidence is still very low and I don't see a surge in bookings as it's still quite a difficult process to go on holiday in terms of tests before you go and when you come back.
"I absolutely want a four nations approach, I think it is the most sensible thing to do when it comes to international travel."
Jacon Leitch, the Scottish Government’s national clinical director, said a final decision on changes to travel rules would be taken on Tuesday morning.
He said "vaccination programme has changed the equation a little" on overseas travel compared to last summer but there was concern "about variants in particular", explaining why the English green list of countries was so small.