European countries could be added to travel red list, warns health minister

Heathrow Airport  - Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg
Heathrow Airport - Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

European countries could be added to the travel red list, said the health minister, as she pledged the Government would take “immediate action” in the face of a spike of the new omicron variant.

Gillian Keegan said the Government was “trying to keep things going” but she refused to rule out countries on the continent being added to the red list, requiring travellers to quarantine in a hotel for 11 nights at a cost of up to £2,285.

Ten countries in and around South Africa have been put on the red list since omicron emerged last week, prompting governments around the world to impose new border restrictions.

The Netherlands has had the highest number of cases in Europe, with Dutch scientists revealing on Tuesday the new variant of Covid-19 was already present and spreading across the country 10 days ago.

Asked whether the UK should expect further restrictions on travel, Ms Keegan said: “Obviously we’ve put some more countries on the red list but we’re not doing some things which would potentially shut travel down altogether.

“The red list is reviewed every three weeks so we’ll continue to do that … and obviously if we get some flare-ups in cases then we’ll take immediate action.”

Number of passengers falls

The new UK restrictions were introduced at 4am on Tuesday with all passengers required to self-isolate until they have had a negative result from a PCR test taken within two days of arrival.

It emerged on Tuesday that some flights leaving the UK saw as many as 20 per cent of passengers fail to turn up on Monday, and 15 per cent on Sunday, after the sudden imposition of restrictions on Saturday deterred them from flying.

A senior air industry source blamed the hike in the cost of testing on their return - with PCRs at £80 on average nearly four times as much as the lateral flow swabs they replaced - and imposition of new tests by other countries such as Portugal on both jabbed and unjabbed travellers.

“There might also be people who say, ‘I am feeling a bit concerned about this new variant and I don’t want to catch it’,” said the source.

Harriet Thorpe, from Beaconsfield, in Buckinghamshire, abandoned her flight on Monday to France via Geneva after being told of the plight the previous day of an interior designer working with her.

The interior designer had to wait five hours at Heathrow for a PCR test and get a letter to confirm she was on a business trip to pass through Switzerland, which has imposed quarantine for arrivals.

“We are now planning to drive for Christmas,” said Ms Thorpe.

Ireland announces new restrictions

It came as Ireland announced it will require all arrivals including those from Britain to have proof of a negative PCR test - regardless of their vaccination status - to slow the potential spread of the new omicron variant.

Ireland is studying 11 suspected omicron cases after initial tests showed they had a trait distinct from the dominant delta variant. The rules will not apply across the open border with Northern Ireland.

Huw Merriman, Tory chairman of the Commons Transport Committee, urged ministers to cap the costs of PCR tests, which can add more than £400 to the cost of a family of five’s holiday.

“The Government should be legislating to keep their cost down and to back the international travel sector,” he said.

“Our aviation industry has just started to get back on its feet. We cannot shut down our economy every time there is a variant of concern or we will never recover from the pandemic.”

Yvette Cooper, Labour’s new shadow home secretary, wrote to Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, and Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, urging them to strengthen border controls by introducing pre-departure tests for returning passengers claiming the current PCR regime was “wholly insufficient” to prevent more omicron cases entering the UK.