The EU has delayed putting the UK on a “white list” of countries from where non-essential travel into the bloc is approved because of concerns about the rise in cases linked to the Delta variant first identified in India.
Japan, which is in an extended state of emergency during which there has been a sustained reduction in the number of new infections, has been added to the list, diplomatic sources said. The country is due to host the Olympic Games on 23 July.
The decision in principle was made during a meeting of ambassadors in Brussels on Wednesday. Sources said the UK’s status would be examined again on 14 June.
Member states are recommended to lift travel restrictions on people coming from countries on the EU’s white list, which is currently composed of Israel, New Zealand, Rwanda, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and Australia.
The UK’s infection level meets the threshold to enter the list but concerns over a rising trend, largely driven by the highly transmissible Delta variant, prompted EU ambassadors to be cautious.
Just over 24,000 people tested positive in the UK over the last seven days, up 31.9% on the previous week. Hospital admissions wwere up 23.2% from 706 to 870.
Despite the official recommendation to member states, a number of countries in Europe, including Greece and Portugal, have said they will welcome British tourists coming for their summer holidays.
The infection level in the UK remains comparatively low, with 3,165 cases reported on 1 June. The Office for National Statistics also reported on Wednesday that the number of deaths was at its lowest level for eight months. There were 9,860 deaths from all causes registered in the week ending 21 May.
Of these, 107 had “novel coronavirus” mentioned on the death certificate. At the peak of the second wave, in the week ending 29 January, Covid-19 accounted for 45.7% of registered deaths.
Diplomatic sources said the debate in the UK over whether to fully unlock restrictions on 21 June had fed into the EU’s debate over entry to the white list.
A growing number of scientists and advisers to the government have urged the prime minister to delay the final lifting of restrictions, including the removal of social contact limits and the opening of nightclubs and large events, for fear of a third wave.
Boris Johnson said on Wednesday that there was “nothing in the data at the moment that means we cannot go ahead with step four” of lifting coronavirus restrictions, though he appeared less bullish than in previous days.
“We’ve got to be so cautious,” he said. “We always knew that was going to happen. What we need to work out is to what extent the vaccination programme has protected enough of us, particularly the elderly and vulnerable, against a new surge, and there I’m afraid the data is still ambiguous. The best the scientists can say at the moment is we just need to give it a little bit longer.”