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Boris Johnson is on Wednesday expected to approve the reopening of England’s doors to double-vaccinated tourists from the EU and the US, in a move that will bring relief to the country’s leisure sector.
Whitehall officials said UK ministers, led by chancellor Rishi Sunak, had pushed the prime minister to act, arguing that it was safe to start readmitting foreign tourists without the need for quarantine if they had received two jabs.
Sunak was particularly concerned that tourist destinations like London would lose out to locations like Paris and Rome now that the EU had decided to admit US visitors.
“It could take effect from as early as next week,” said one Whitehall official briefed on the ministerial discussions. “Rishi has been leading the way on this.” Falling coronavirus case numbers in the UK made the decision easier.
Grant Shapps, transport secretary, and Oliver Dowden, culture secretary, have both also argued for a resumption of travel into England. Arrivals from the EU and US would have to take a test pre-departure and repeat the process on day two of their stay.
The decision to reopen England to EU tourists was made easier after the bloc started issuing citizens with a digital health pass from the start of this month.
Opening up to double-vaccinated US travellers is more complicated since the American system of proof is paper-based and organised at a state level.
But government officials said ministers were confident that US travellers with an American passport and a paper certificate would provide the reassurance needed.
Airlines expect to be asked to check passengers’ documentation at check-in, and have been conducting trials with travellers from the US and EU to try to push ministers into opening up travel for vaccinated visitors.
Transatlantic travel is critical to airlines such as British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, and has been severely depressed since the start of the pandemic.
The White House said on Monday it would maintain its Covid travel bans for the foreseeable future on a range of countries, including the UK, EU nations and China, due to the spread of the more transmissible Delta variant.
Ministers hope that the unilateral move to welcome back US tourists to England will be seen as “a gesture of goodwill” that could accelerate the full reopening of transatlantic travel.
Companies across the inbound tourism sector celebrated the news but warned that more red tape would need to be cut if business was to recover.
Inbound tourism is the UK’s fifth largest export industry generating £28.4bn in export earnings in 2019, £5bn less than the car industry.
Joss Croft, chief executive of trade body UKInbound, said the sector needed an imminent schedule for the changes. “Until we get a date no one can book,” he said. “We are running out of road. Tourism in the UK, particularly outside London, is very seasonal so now we only have possibly August and a bit of September before we are into autumn and winter again.”
The government also needed to work to reduce the cost of testing, which was “prohibitive” and putting off holidaymakers, he added.
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, said the announcement would boost central London businesses in particular: “[The US and EU] are our two most important markets when it comes to rebuilding our inbound tourism.” Losing US tourists to the EU had been a “big concern”, she added.
Johnson, who will host a meeting of the Covid-O ministerial committee on Wednesday, is also expected to announce a scheme to allow UK expats who have been vaccinated abroad to return home without having to quarantine.
Ministers are thought to be looking at ways to extend the NHS app certification process to British citizens living abroad who have been double jabbed with vaccines approved for use in the UK.
They are also likely to discuss whether France should be taken off the newly created “amber plus” list, which has disrupted the holiday plans of tens of thousands of Britons, although any final decision may not come until next week.