Joe Biden has ended America’s controversial travel ban that has lasted for 18 months – long after critics believed it was having an effect on controlling the spread of Covid-19.
His administration confirmed on Monday that fully vaccinated travellers from the UK – and China, India and many other European countries – will be able to visit the US from November.
It ends the near blanket ban on foreign travellers from entering the country, which was introduced by former president Donald Trump at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Only American citizens, their immediate families, green card holders and those granted a National Interest Exemption could enter the US if they had been in the UK or the European Union over the last 14 days.
The protracted ban – which was still in place despite Covid variants sweeping through the US, mainly through the unvaccinated – had prevented tens of thousands of foreign nationals from flying to the US to see family members and slashed business travel.
What is happening?
The US will admit fully vaccinated air travellers from the 26 so-called Schengen countries in Europe including France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Greece, as well as the UK, Ireland, China, India, South Africa, Iran and Brazil.
The existing policy had barred non-US citizens who had been in those countries within 14 days.
White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients, who announced Biden’s U-turn, did not give a precise start date beyond saying “early November”.
What has the UK government said?
Re-opening the lucrative Atlantic flight corridor between the US and the UK has been a central goal of Boris Johnson’s government – both in terms of post-Covid re-opening and building foreign relations as part of the Global Britain agenda in the aftermath of Brexit.
To that end, a US-UK taskforce was launched in June with the goal of opening up travel, with speculation a UK-US “air bridge” could be developed as the vaccination rate in both countries accelerated. But the issue appeared to have stalled with the White House stating just last week that it was not the right time to lift any restrictions.
And the prime minister himself appeared to have been caught off-guard by the announcement as he flew to New York for a meeting with United Nations leaders.
Johnson told reporters on the plane on Sunday night: “I don’t think we’re necessarily going to crack it this week ... it’s possible but I wouldn’t hold your breath.”
But by Monday morning he was “delighted” and hailing a “fantastic boost for business and trade, and great that family and friends on both sides of the pond can be reunited once again”.
Speaking at a press conference in New York, he said: “We have done it faster than we expected but that’s thanks to the hard work of our teams.”
Whether the UK can claim the move reflects the UK-US “special relationship” is debateable given the widespread lifting of the ban.
Why is the news important for business?
The US policies have devastated international travel and tourism and shaken the airline industry.
The announcement is a major boost for UK airlines such as British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, and Heathrow Airport.
They have repeatedly blamed the travel ban for limiting the recovery of passenger numbers during the virus crisis.
Heathrow has gone from being Europe’s busiest airport in 2019 to 10th, behind rivals in cities such as Amsterdam, Paris and Frankfurt.
Around 3.8 million British nationals visited the US every year prior to the pandemic, according to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
British Airways chief executive Sean Doyle said: “Today’s news, which will see our two nations reunited after more than 18 months apart, marks an historic moment and one which will provide a huge boost to global Britain as it emerges from this pandemic.”
Shai Weiss, chief executive of Virgin Atlantic, said the easing of restrictions is “a major milestone to the reopening of travel at scale, allowing consumers and businesses to book travel to the US with confidence”.
Heathrow boss John Holland-Kaye said: “Connectivity between the US and the UK is part of the bedrock of the global economy.
“The prime minister has secured a massive win for Global Britain in getting these links restarted.”
What does entry to the US require?
The White House said all foreign visitors will need to demonstrate proof of vaccination as well as proof of a negative test taken within the previous three days.
The US Food and Drug Administration recognises people who have received the Pfizer, Moderna or Janssen from Johnson & Johnson jab as fully vaccinated.
Travellers who have received the AstraZeneca vaccine – the most widely distributed in the UK – should also be able to enter because the US acknowledges its approval by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The prime minister’s official spokesperson said it was “confident” that any coronavirus vaccine approved by the UK would be accepted by the US for travel purposes: “I have got not indications that it won’t be.
“I am confident that every vaccine we have used, any vaccine received in the UK and approved by the NHS, obviously signed-off by the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency), WHO will be applicable.”
Airlines will be required to collect contact information from international travellers so that they can be traced if required. No quarantine will be required.