Portugal and Mauritius have been removed from England’s travel “red list” in the first major change to rules for international arrivals in months.
It means people will be allowed to travel from the two countries, as well as Madeira and the Azores, to England again, and non-British residents and nationals who were previously allowed to do so will no longer have to quarantine in a hotel but can spend the time at home instead.
They can get tested on days two and eight after their journey and will be able to end self-isolation early through the test-to-release scheme.
However, four other countries – Ethiopia, Oman, Somalia and Qatar – are being added to the red list, and will be subject to a travel ban.
All the changes come into effect from 4am on Friday 19 March.
National lockdown rules are still in place in England, meaning travel out of the country is only allowed for a few essential reasons. Political leaders in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland decide what coronavirus conditions to place on travellers arriving in their respective nations.
Portugal was the only European country added to the red list when it came into force on 15 January, in an attempt to prevent passengers carrying the Covid variants originally found in Brazil and South Africa into the UK.
Scientists advising the government are wary of letting the variants spread, given fears they are more infectious, but have said vaccines are still effective against them.
Portugal is now being removed from the red list because evidence shows the risk of a variant being imported from it “has reduced”, the government said. It added the country has “put steps in place to mitigate the risk from its links with countries where variants have become a concern” and that ministers are prepared to take further “decisive action if necessary to contain the virus”.
The move will come as a small boost to the aviation and tourism industries, which have been hit hard during the pandemic, and will raise hopes that international travel may be allowed again this year after ministers dampened down speculation by discouraging people from booking trips abroad this summer.
Surge testing has been rolled out to more than a dozen postcodes in England over the past few months in an effort to catch cases of the two variants of concern spreading through community transmission.
Weeks ago a nationwide search was set up to track down someone who had tested positive for the Brazilian variant but whose identity was unknown because they had not filled out a form registering their test correctly, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, said.
The week-long operation included a public appeal for anyone who had not received their test result to come forward and officials from Public Health England teaming up with the postal service, until the mystery person from Croydon came forward themselves.
It prompted criticism of the government for implementing the hotel quarantine system nearly three weeks after announcing the plan to introduce it.
Scientists on Sage, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, had warned even before then that “reactive, geographically targeted” travel bans “cannot be relied upon to stop importation of new variants”.
They said in a meeting on 21 January that this was because of “the lag between the emergence and identification of variants of concern” as well as “the potential for indirect travel” to the UK via third countries.
Ministers have avoided putting a date on when international travel can resume again while they investigate the feasibility of vaccine passports, which would give those who have had a coronavirus jab some form of proof of inoculation.
Greece’s tourism minister revealed last month the country was in “technical” talks with the UK over allowing Britons carrying a vaccine passport to travel to its tourist hotspots from May.
Haris Theoharis said he hoped to “dovetail” with Boris Johnson’s roadmap and added: “Planning is a pre-requisite for the travel industry.”
Domestic “vaccine certificates” are also being considered for use in domestic settings such as pubs and theatres, as part of several reviews being carried out by the Cabinet Office for life after lockdown.