The US will lift Covid-19 travel restrictions to allow fully vaccinated passengers from the UK and most European Union (EU) countries to travel into the country from early November, the White House has announced.
The move signals the end of a travel ban imposed by Donald Trump more than 18 months ago in the early stages of the pandemic, and comes after intense lobbying from Brussels and London.
In addition to the UK and the 26 Schengen countries in Europe, the easing of restrictions will also apply to Ireland, China, Iran, Brazil, South Africa and India.
It was welcomed by Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, who tweeted: “It’s a fantastic boost for business and trade, and great that family and friends on both sides of the pond can be reunited once again.”
Downing Street hailed the decision as the result of a bilateral “travel taskforce” that has been meeting fortnightly since the summer, though was unable to say what benefit it had brought, given that the easing of restrictions applies to scores of other countries as well as the UK.
Under current policy, only US citizens, their immediate families, green card holders and those with national interest exemptions (NIE) can travel into the US if they have been in the UK or EU in the previous two weeks.
The White House coronavirus response coordinator, Jeff Zients, said on Monday international travellers will require proof of full vaccination before boarding a flight and a negative Covid-19 test within 72 hours of departure. They will not be required to quarantine upon arrival.
There will be some exceptions to the vaccine policy including for children not yet eligible to be vaccinated. The new rules do not yet apply to travellers crossing land borders with Mexico and Canada.
“This new international travel system follows the science to keep Americans and international air travel safe,” Zients told reporters. “By requiring foreign nationals to be fully vaccinated in order to fly to the United States and in implementing additional strict safety protocols, we will protect Americans here at home and enhance the safety of international travel.
“This is based on individuals rather than a country-based approach.”
The new policy will take effect in “early November”, Zients added, to allow airlines and travel partners time to prepare to implement the new protocols.
British Airways chief executive Sean Doyle said the US announcement “marks a historic moment and one which will provide a huge boost to global Britain as it emerges from this pandemic”.
Shares in US airlines were little changed, while some European carriers gained. British Airways parent IAG SA rose 11.2%, while Air France-KLM and Deutsche Lufthansa AG closed up more than 5%.
The International Air Transport Association, or IATA, which has 290 member airlines accounting for 82% of global air travel, described it as “a major step forward”.
“This is excellent news for families and loved ones … It’s good for the millions of livelihoods in the US that depend on global tourism. And it will boost the economic recovery by enabling some key business travel markets,” IATA director general Willie Walsh said.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will issue a contact tracing order that obliges airlines to collect a phone number, email address and other information from US-bound travellers.
Zients explained: “This will enable the CDC and state and local public health officials to follow up with inbound travelers and those around them if someone has potentially been exposed to Covid-19.”
The changes will be part of a new travel system the US, including updated rules on contact tracing and masking that will mean unvaccinated Americans will face stricter testing requirements.
Restrictions were first imposed on travellers from China in January 2020 by Trump and then extended to other countries in the following months, without any clear metrics for how and when to lift them.
In April this year Joe Biden added new restrictions on India, barring most non-American citizens from entering the US. He also reversed plans by Trump to lift restrictions on European countries.
This caused growing frustration in Europe, especially after its vaccination rate recovered from a slow start to overtake that in America. Airlines were unsuccessful in their efforts to persuade the White House to lift the restrictions for the summer travel season.
Biden had been likely to face renewed pressure when he comes face to face with Johnson and other European leaders at the United Nations general assembly in New York this week. About 3.8 million British nationals visited the US every year prior to the pandemic, according to the foreign office.
Dame Karen Pierce, the British ambassador to Washington, said: “Today’s travel announcement is great news for families and businesses on both sides of the Atlantic. We are grateful the US has recognized the progress the UK has made against Covid-19, including high vaccination rates and declining cases.”
She added: “This decision means that more Brits can reunite with loved ones in the United States, more British holidaymakers can spend their hard-earned pounds in the American tourism sector, and more business activity can boost both of our economies.”
A state department official denied that the change in policy was an attempt to mollify Europe following the falling out between the US and France over the Aukus Australian submarine deal, which Washington negotiated without Paris’s knowledge, prompting France to recall its ambassador to the US.
Erica Barks-Ruggles, a senior official in the Bureau of International Organization Affairs, said: “This is really driven by the science of Covid and as more people are being vaccinated around the world, we of course want people to be able to travel more freely.”
Speaking during a briefing call with reporters ahead of the United Nations general assembly, Barkes-Ruggles said: “We’re really always being driven by the science, and we continue to do that.”
The EU and UK had moved to allow vaccinated Americans travellers into their territories without quarantines, in an effort to boost business and tourism travel. But the EU recommended last month that some travel restrictions be reimposed on US travellers because of the spread of the Delta variant.
The US announcement also came in the context of Biden pushing other countries to join the US in donating vaccines to the global Covax initiative. The president is set to host a summit on the sidelines of the UN general assembly.