‘Hotel quarantine’: What some travellers to the UK will face from 15 February

Simon CalderFri, 5 February 2021, 6:50 am

 (Simon Calder)
(Simon Calder)

Hotel quarantine, as used since last March in Asia and Australasia, will start in the UK on Monday15 February.

“There are still too many people coming in and out of our country every day,” said the home secretary, Priti Patel.

She has promised additional measures to reduce the number of people travelling as “a necessary step to protect the public”.

These are the key questions and answers.

What are the new UK restrictions?

Quarantine is currently mandatory for all overseas arrivals except for those from Ireland. Since 18 January, the government has insisted that each arriving traveller presents a negative test for coronavirus that has been taken within three days of departure (or longer if an en route stop is involved).

From 15 February the government is to impose mandatory hotel quarantine for arrivals from the countries on the government’s “red list” – currently numbering 33. The aim is to limit the spread of new variants of coronavirus.

These nations, mostly in southern Africa and South America, are currently subject to a ban on direct flights, but UK and Irish citizens and residents are free to come back by alternative routes.

Direct flights are not allowed from 14 African nations (Angola, Botswana, Burundi, Democratic Congo, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe).

Flights from three island nations off the coast of Africa – Cape Verde, Mauritius and the Seychelles – have been banned. In normal times they are popular holiday destinations with direct flights from the UK.

The entire continent of South America, as well as Panama, is on the list – adding another 14 countries.

The most significant nation, though, in terms of British visitors and expatriates, is Portugal. At present it is the only European country subject to a flight ban.

British and Irish citizens, as well as third-country nationals with residential rights in the UK, can come in whenever they like but must follow the rules.

Currently that means self-isolating along with their households for 10 days. But from 15 February they will be taken to what the government calls “Managed Quarantine Facilities” for 10 nights – effectively 11 days.

How will candidates for hotel quarantine be identified?

Because direct flights from red list locations are banned, passengers will arrive from a wide range of intermediate locations – for example via Madrid from Latin America, or on Eurostar trains from Paris, Brussels or Amsterdam.

Every arriving traveller must complete a passenger locator form in which That could present problems to UK Border Force.

But very few travellers from anywhere are coming in at present, and by 15 February there will be even fewer from “red list” countries – since they have been given plenty of warning about the start of hotel quarantine. UK border officials will inspect passports for evidence and ask to see boarding passes and travel itineraries.

How will hotel quarantine work?

Details are still unclear. In Australia, New Zealand and many Asian nations the standard arrangement is for border officials to board the plane on arrival to give instructions.

Passengers obliged to undergo hotel quarantine are escorted through the airport, including a health screen process, and taken to a nearby hotel, sometimes under police expert.

According to documents seen by the BBC, those hotels will be exclusively for the use of quarantining travellers. They will be patrolled by security guards paid for by the government. During the stay they will undergo two Covid tests. Anyone who tests positive is likely to have their stay extended, unless hospital treatment is needed.

The cost of around £800 per person will include three meals a day brought to the rooms, with tea, coffee, fruit and water available. Anyone who wants to get fresh air or smoke will need to be accompanied by a security guard.

If the Australian model is followed, alcohol will be available – at a price. Tony Wheeler, co-founder of Lonely Planet, who himself was obliged to self-isolate on return from the Middle East to Australia in March 2020, warns: “You can’t bring your own booze for your 14-day stay. The hotel will charge you minibar prices for anything you drink.”

What if I have a domestic flight connection?

Changing planes at London Heathrow to another UK destination, such as Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow or Belfast, is most unlikely to be permitted before self-isolation. To apply hotel quarantine other than at the point of arrival would undermine the whole principle of the policy.

Won’t people simply get in ahead of the deadline?

Many will. Home self-isolation may be annoying, but bearable, particularly for those lucky enough to have a garden. And it doesn’t cost £80 per night. So there is likely to be a surge of people getting on flights, ferries and trains to try to beat the deadline.

The government anticipates hotel quarantine will apply to around 1,000 people per day. The Independent expects the number to be far lower.

Are there enough hotels to go around?

Yes, especially if the announcement of the 15 February triggers the expected surge of arrivals before that.

Heathrow, the main access point to the UK, is surrounded by hotels, almost all of which are near-empty or closed due to lack of custom.

Other airports also have plenty of hotel capacity, with occupancy typically down to single-figure percentages.

Dover and Folkestone have plenty of hotels near the port and Eurotunnel terminal respectively. London St Pancras, the arrival point for Eurostar, has a hotel at the station and many more very close in the centre of the capital.

There are significant challenges about staffing, security and catering, but the should not be insurmountable.

What will I do all day?

The Australian government, which has nearly a year’s experience of hotel quarantine, advises its detainees: “Bring physical books or download movies ahead of time in case there are issues with the hotel Wi-Fi.”

Two weeks with few distractions could provide the ideal opportunity to learn a new language.

I’ve had both vaccinations. Can I skip hotel quarantine?

No. Your Covid-19 status is of no relevance as far as the new system is concerned. So whether you have had the jab or have successfully recovered from the virus, you will still need to follow the rules.

What is Scotland doing differently?

The first minister has announced “managed quarantine for anyone who arrives directly into Scotland, no matter which country they are coming from”.

The aim, said Nicola Sturgeon, is to minimise the risk from importing new variants of coronavirus.It is not yet clear when the measure will take effect.

The presumption in the travel industry is that the new rule will not apply to arrivals from the Republic of Ireland due to long-standing Common Travel Area agreement.

Even with the current number of international arrivals, the impact is likely to be minimal. Almost all flights from overseas to Scotland have ended, with a handful from Norway and Qatar to Aberdeen and Edinburgh respectively.

It is not clear what measures, if any, will apply to passengers who arrive in England from non-“red list” countries and travel north.

When might hotel quarantine end?

That is unclear, and the government will not give a definite date. But the travel industry is desperate for an end point and hopes it will end before the Easter long weekend: 2-5 April 2021.

A spokesperson for the travel trade association, Abta, said: “The introduction of quarantine hotels for ‘red list countries’ builds on a mountain of existing measures for travel, and we need to see a clear plan for how these will be lifted.“

Jobs are being lost at an alarming rate and longstanding businesses have gone to the wall. The lack of financial support targeted at addressing the consequences for businesses of international travel restrictions needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.”

Some government sources have said hotel quarantine will last for six to eight weeks. That indicates an end point in late March or early April, though previous policies have been eased much sooner; blanket quarantine lasted only 33 days.

Why not just close the airports?

Closing Heathrow, Manchester and other UK airports to passenger traffic could be mandated by the government. But it would cause immense problems for the very few people who are travelling at the moment, and ultimately is unlikely to do any good.

The transport secretary revealed earlier this month that only one in 1,000 of the coronavirus cases in England in December was brought in from abroad – and that was a month with plenty of people travelling, including 1.1 million through Heathrow.

Today the figure is likely to be far lower, due to the diminishing number of arrivals to the UK.

A brief history of quarantine?

The home secretary has told Parliament: “From January 2020, the government have had a comprehensive strategy for public health measures at the border.”

Early in 2020, the UK imposed quarantine measures aimed at preventing the spread of the virus from known hotspots including China, Iran and northern Italy. On 13 March 2020 these measures ended.

The government said there was no point in continuing to insist on self-isolation because coronavirus was widespread in the UK.

Two days later, Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, imposed two weeks of self-isolation on arrivals from all countries. By the end of March, the law had been strengthened to make “hotel quarantine” mandatory. The measure was announced on 27 March and took effect the next day.

Three months later, on 8 June 2020, the UK government made a U-turn, going from no quarantine to quarantine from everywhere, with 14 days of self-isolation required.

A month after that, the concept of “travel corridors” took effect, allowing journeys from most European countries without self-isolation. But by late July Spain had lost exemption, and in the months since then most popular destinations have also had quarantine-free status removed.

In December, the time required for quarantine was reduced from 14 to 10 days, and in England “test to release” was brought in – allowing self-isolation to be halved for those who received a negative test result on day five.

On 18 January 2021, all quarantine exemptions were removed.

Surely no one should be travelling out from the UK?

Under current lockdown rules, no leisure travel is allowed for anyone living in the UK.

Under proposed new measures, airlines, ferry firms and train operators will have to ask passengers departing from the UK the purpose of their journey – and turn away people who don’t appear to qualify for going abroad (eg work, education, medical treatment and essential family reasons).

Clive Wratten, chief executive of the Business Travel Association, said: “Placing the burden of proof for the validity of travel onto international carriers is an untenable situation for companies and staff that are already at breaking point.”

So who is coming home?

There are currently many UK citizens and residents abroad for legitimate reasons and who will be returning home in due course.

Some of the people who are coming in now will have left the country before the third lockdown started in January and have been on long-stay trips – whether holidays or staying with family or partners they had not seen for months.

People who have been staying in a second property abroad are at liberty to return.

Some arrivals are travelling home to the UK for compassionate reasons, for example if a member of their family is dangerously ill.

A few “lost souls” are still returning to their families and homes in the UK after spending time abroad – often prolonged by lockdown measures in the location in which they were staying.

Business travel is continuing, mainly comprising professionals working in specialist fields such as medicine, media or the oil industry, or people attending job interviews.

Some business leaders running multinational concerns are travelling, but there are very few executives visiting customers or suppliers.