Simon CalderTue, 9 February 2021, 9:19 pm
Hotel quarantine, as used since last March in Asia and Australasia, will start in the UK on Monday 15 February.
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said travellers from “red list” countries will pay £1,750 for a 10-night stay – though it later emerged that this price is a maximum and that rates, particularly for couples, could be considerably lower.
Heavy penalties will apply to anyone who misrepresents where they have visited or who fails to go into hotel quarantine when they should.
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.
Read more: How is the ‘red list’ decided?
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 hotel quarantine work?
Travellers will self-identify in advance. Everyone from the red list countries must pre-book a room, at a cost of “less than £1,750,” according to the Department of Health and Social Care in an online statement.
“Bookings will be made through a dedicated online portal and will include: assigned government transportation; food and drinks; accommodation in a government-approved facility; security; welfare; testing.”
The cost for additional people in the same room is expected to be significantly less than the rate for an individual traveller.
For example, if the first person pays £1,500, the second may be £750, with perhaps £500 for a child.
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 they reveal to UK Border Force the countries they have been to in the past 10 days. Failure to disclose relevant travel history could lead to a prison sentence of 10 years.
UK border officials will inspect passports for evidence and ask to see boarding passes and travel itineraries.
Passengers obliged to undergo hotel quarantine are expected to be escorted through the port or airport, including a health screening process, and taken to a nearby hotel, possibly under police escort.
Those hotels will be exclusively for the use of quarantining traveller. Three meals a day will be 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.
During the stay they will undergo two Covid tests: one on day two, the next on day eight. The cost of these is included in the quarantine fee.
Those who test positive are likely to have their stay extended, unless hospital treatment is needed. It is not clear whether they are likely to face a higher bill for a longer stay.
What if I can’t pay?
If you can’t afford it, that is your problem, the government says. The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, has ruled out financial assistance. The idea seems to be for you to get back to the UK before you become subject to hotel quarantine and the consequent bill.
Plans to charge appear to contravene Article 40 of the World Health Organisation (WHO) International Health Regulations, which says: “No charge shall be made [for] appropriate isolation or quarantine requirements of travellers.”
Can I get a drink?
Probably. 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.”
But New Zealand allows delivery of up to two litres of beer and one bottle of wine per day.
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.
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.
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 – unless significant new countries were to be added to the list after the scheme starts. If Spain were included, for example, hundreds of people could be affected.
Are there enough hotels to go around?
Yes, especially if the announcement of the 15 February triggers the expected surge of arrivals before that.
The government has contracted 4,600 hotel rooms, with more available if necessary.
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.
Can I choose my hotel?
Probably not. Some countries, such as Thailand, have a menu of different hotels at various prices to suit your style of self-isolation. But the UK is unlikely to offer flexibility.
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 wifi.”
Two weeks with few distractions could provide the ideal opportunity to learn a new language.
Or you could talk to the media; email@example.com will find me.
The New Zealand government tells quarantinees: “There is high public interest in the managed isolation and quarantine facilities. Media might contact you and it is your choice whether you talk to them.
“Please remember journalists cannot enter the hotel. If you agree to an interview, you will need to use remote options such as phone or video calling.”
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”. It is not yet clear when the measure will take effect nor how it will work, but it may mean regular checks on people quarantining at home.
The presumption in the travel industry is that the new rule will not apply to arrivals from the Republic of Ireland due to longstanding 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. One rumour suggests that the government has a prospective end date of 31 March.
Previous policies whose efficacy is controversial have been eased much sooner; blanket quarantine lasted only 33 days after it was introduced on 8 June 2020.
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.”
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?
Many UK citizens and residents are currently abroad for legitimate reasons and will return 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.
There are also some people from Commonwealth countries coming in on ancestry visas (on the basis that one grandparent was born in the UK) and family visas.
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.