Boris Johnson has thrown summer holiday plans into disarray by delaying for another month the decision on when international travel can restart after the coronavirus lockdown.
The travel industry responded with dismay to an official review that said it was too early to say whether non-essential trips abroad would resume as planned on 17 May.
One industry leader said the sector was being “crippled” by the lack of certainty from the government, while another said that tens of thousands of jobs remained at risk as long as travel was kept on ice.
Mr Johnson gave the green light to the reopening of shops and beer gardens in England from next Monday, saying that progress in the battle against the coronavirus had cleared the way for a relaxation of lockdown rules on the earliest possible date of 12 April.
And he said that government experts and ministers had seen “nothing in the present data that makes us think that we will have to deviate” from his roadmap out of lockdown, which envisages the final lifting of restrictions on 21 June.
But he refused to commit to any timetable for the return of international travel, insisting he would not give “hostages to fortune” at a time when “waves of sickness” are sweeping across many of British tourists’ most favoured destinations, such as France, Greece and Italy.
With the government’s global travel taskforce due to report later this week, Mr Johnson promised only to set out “what we think is reasonable” before 17 May.
An interim report from four reviews of life after lockdown made clear that any return of international travel is likely to be governed by a “traffic light” system of controls, with arrivals from “green”, low-risk countries required to take tests before and after travelling, those from riskier, “amber” areas self-isolating at home, and any from high-risk, “red” countries placed in hotel quarantine for 10 days.
And it indicated that a “Covid status certification” scheme may be introduced for venues like theatres, nightclubs, festivals and sports events, with trials taking place over the coming weeks at a comedy club, cinema and nightclub in Liverpool, the World Snooker Championship in Sheffield, and a running event in Hatfield, with the aim of admitting 20,000 football fans to Wembley for the FA Cup final on 15 May.
But the prime minister backed away from mandatory “vaccine passports” for pubs and restaurants, following loud opposition from MPs.
A consultation with the hospitality industry now looks likely to make the certificates voluntary for landlords who wish to use them in order to avoid the need for social distancing inside premises.
Speaking at a Downing Street press conference following a special bank holiday meeting of the cabinet to approve the moves, Mr Johnson said that he would be visiting a pub on 12 April and “cautiously but irreversibly raising a pint of beer to my lips”.
The UK’s vaccination programme and adherence to lockdown rules was “paying off”, he said. But he continued to urge caution, warning that people should continue to work from home where possible and urging anyone invited for a second Covid-19 jab to take up the offer.
The new relaxations mean that non-essential retail, gyms, hairdressers and beauty salons will reopen their doors on Monday to let customers inside for the first time since the third English lockdown was imposed on 5 January.
Pubs, restaurants and cafes will be allowed to open for outdoor service, with no curfew. Customers will have to be seated to eat and drink, but there will be no requirement for a substantial meal to be served alongside alcohol.
Overnight stays away from home will be permitted in England, and self-contained accommodation, such as holiday cottages, can open for visitors who are members of the same household or support bubble. But holidays abroad remain illegal.
Also opening their doors will be libraries, community centres, zoos and theme parks.
Care home residents will be able to have two regular visitors, and the maximum attendance at weddings will increase from six to 15.
However, rules on social distancing will continue to apply, with indoor settings to be visited either alone or as part of a one-household group, and outdoor gatherings limited to either six people or two households.
Mr Johnson said the relaxations had been made possible because England continued to meet the government’s four tests, of a successful vaccine programme, reductions in Covid hospitalisations and deaths, no surge in infections and no increase in risk from new variants.
Official figures showed 26 deaths and 2,762 positive tests reported on 5 April across the UK. The seven-day total for positive tests was down by one-third (33.5 per cent) on the previous week at 24,455, while the number of deaths over the period fell by 44 per cent to 248.
By Sunday, 31,581,623 people in the UK had received their first Covid-19 vaccination, with 5,432,126 having had the second dose.
The Confederation of British Industry’s director of policy, John Foster, said the new package of measures “gives the UK a real chance of leading the world in a safe and sustainable reopening of the economy, hopefully paving the way for a strong recovery”.
But he added: “Restarting international travel is vital for all parts of the economy, including tourism. The new traffic light system is a simple, risk-based approach that business has been calling for. It should be implemented alongside straightforward border arrangements, advance testing where necessary, and high-quality communications about any future changes to a country’s status.”
Claire Walker, co-executive director of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “Many firms will be breathing a huge sigh of relief that they will soon be able to reopen their doors to customers.
“However, the route back to a full reopening of the economy is still a long way off, with continued uncertainty for some sectors about whether, and when, the next roadmap steps will be met, and many more firms asking questions, yet to be answered, about when they can open at full capacity or with fewer restrictions.”