• Quote: ‘Summer holidays overseas are extremely unlikely because of the risk of travellers bringing coronavirus variants back to the UK’
  • Quote: ‘Summer holiday bookings surged from July onwards. Strong demand for UK-based flights – people desperate to go abroad’

By Andrew Atkinson

Spain could be facing another coronavirus bombshell – following the UK government saying summer holidays overseas are ‘extremely unlikely’ this year because of the risk of travellers bringing coronavirus variants back to the country.

The news comes in the wake of record bookings to fly to Spain from the UK this summer.

The UK faces a “real risk” if people travel abroad, Dr Mike Tildesley said.

Foreign holidays are currently not allowed, due to the coronavirus situation, with returning travellers to the UK having to quarantine.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said it was too early to tell when holidays abroad would be allowed.

Under the current road map for easing restrictions, the earliest date people in England could holiday abroad would be May 17.

People can currently travel abroad for a limited number of reasons, including education or work, who have to fill in a Declaration to Travel form stating a valid reason for leaving the country.

A government taskforce will report to the Prime Minister on April 12 detailing when and how international travel can resume.

In Scotland, national clinical director Jason Leitch also said foreign summer holidays in Europe were looking less likely as Covid numbers in some countries were a cause for concern.

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said half of all adults in the UK have had a coronavirus vaccine.

Dr Tildesley, a member of the government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, which feeds into Sage, said there was a danger holidaymakers could bring back variants, like the one that emerged in South Africa – which were less susceptible to vaccines.

Dr Tildesley said: “I think that international travel this summer is, for the average holidaymaker, extremely unlikely.

“I think we are running a real risk if we do start to have lots of people going overseas in July, for instance, and August, because of the potential for bringing more of these new variants back into the country.

“What is really dangerous is if we jeopardise our vaccination campaign by having these variants, where the vaccines don’t work as effectively, spreading more rapidly.”

Prof Andrew Hayward, from Sage, said it was unlikely the government would want to encourage travel to European countries currently experiencing high levels of coronavirus infections.

“I suppose one of the more worrying things about this resurgence is that in some parts of Europe the South African variant is beginning to creep up to higher levels,” he said.

“This variant was of particular concern because vaccine effectiveness against it was quite low,” he added.

Airlines UK, which represents UK-registered carriers, said it was too early to say what the state of Covid will be in Europe and the rest of the world in 10 weeks’ time.

“We have always said any reopening must be risk-based, but also led by the overriding assumption that as the vaccine rollout accelerates both here and abroad, a phased easing of restrictions is achievable,” Airlines UK said.

“We know that universal, restriction-free travel is unlikely from May 17 but under a tiered system, based on risk, international travel can meaningfully restart and build up, with minimal restrictions in time.”

February’s announcement of the roadmap for easing restrictions in England was followed by a flurry of reports from airlines and holiday companies that future bookings had surged – particularly from July onwards.

Although domestic operators reported strong demand for UK-based flights, many people are clearly desperate to go abroad when it is allowed.

Kate Bingham, former head of the UK’s vaccine taskforce, said some European leaders were being completely irresponsible over their approach to the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

“If I was sitting in those countries I would not be happy to have leaders that are undermining a vaccine that could actually protect,” said Ms Bingham.

Several countries decided to suspend use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine following reports some people suffered blood clots after receiving the jab, including Spain.

Data supplied by AstraZeneca showed there had been fewer than 40 reports of blood clots among the 17 million people across Europe who had been given the vaccine.

UK and EU regulators said there was no evidence the Covid vaccine caused blood clots and PM Boris Johnson said the vaccine is safe, receiving it himself.

Dr Catherine Smallwood, from the World Health Organisation, said: “We can’t talk about the interest of one country or one city or one part of the world, this is so interconnected, and we’ve really got to come out of this together.”

Prof Sir John Bell, a member of the government’s vaccine taskforce, criticised France for changing its vaccine advice, calling it crackers.

France is refusing to give the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to under-55s having previously said it was unsuitable for older people. A move Prof Bell said undermined confidence in the vaccination rollout.

The WHO recommends the AstraZeneca vaccine for all ages and against all variants
The WHO recommends the AstraZeneca vaccine for all ages and against all variants

“It doesn’t make any sense. The whole thing looks completely crackers. They are changing the rules almost every week,” he said.

“They are really damaging people’s confidence in vaccines generally, not just the AstraZeneca vaccine.

“They are sitting on a massive stockpile of vaccines that they haven’t deployed yet and at the same time they have got a massive wave of the new variants coming across the country,” he added.

More than 26 million people in the UK have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, according to government figures.

“We can’t be deaf and blind to what’s going on outside the UK,” said Defence Secretary Ben Wallace.

“We can’t put at risk the gains of our vaccination campaign. If we were to be reckless in any way, and import new variants that put out risks, what would people say about that?.

“We’ve got good direction of travel, we’re getting there, and I think we need to make sure we preserve that at all costs,” he added.

The potential U-turn on flights to Europe is a worrying concern for the stricken travel and tourism industry – deeming holidays this summer as crucial, after a year that saw thousands of job losses.