Quarantine: What do the new rules mean for my travel plans?

Simon Calder
Simon Calder

These are the key questions and answers about what the UK’s first blanket quarantine policy means for travellers.

What is happening – and why now?

Most travellers coming to the UK by air, sea or rail are required to self-isolate for 14 days from the day following the day of arrival.

The only exception is if they are leaving the country before the two weeks are up.

The obligation applies to returning holidaymakers as well as foreign visitors to the UK.

The home secretary, Priti Patel, justified the measure by saying: “We are taking these measures at the right time because we are serious about saving lives and controlling the virus.

“Now we are past the peak of this virus, we must take steps to guard against imported cases, triggering a resurgence of this deadly disease.

“As the transmission rate across the UK falls, and the number of travellers arriving in the UK begins to increase, imported cases could begin to pose a larger and increased threat.”

The government’s move is supported by Labour, though the shadow home secretary is calling for a test as an alternative to 14 days of self-isolation.

Does science back the UK’s quarantine move?

No. Blanket quarantine is regarded as of value only when infection rates are low relative to other countries. The UK has one of the highest rates in the world.

The government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, made it clear that the timing of the unprecedented measure was decided by ministers alone.

At a Downing Street daily briefing, he said: “Measures like this are most effective when the number of cases is very low, and they’re most effective when they’re applied to countries with higher rates.

“The judgment of that time is, of course, not something for us, it’s something for politicians to make. They make the policy, and they make the timing decisions.”

The Department of Health and Social Care said soon after the start of the outbreak that quarantine was of only short-term value.

In its justification for introducing the option of 14-day quarantine of individuals, it said: “If and when virus becomes established with sustained widespread transmission in the UK there would no longer be reason to apply these regulations”.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that quarantine can play a part in dealing with pandemics, but only in the early stages.

Its official guidance says: “Introducing quarantine measures early in an outbreak may delay the introduction of the disease to a country or area, or may delay the peak of an epidemic in an area where local transmission is ongoing, or both.”

The WHO does not recommend quarantine for the infection phase in which the UK finds itself.

What will the effects be?

The number of infections – and, tragically, the consequent deaths – will be higher than had quarantine not been introduced.

That is because quarantine has the immediate effect of deterring British holidaymakers from going abroad this summer.

By causing the cancellation of holidays for millions of prospective UK travellers, the quarantine policy will eliminate an effective way to cut the infection rate: reduce the number of candidates for infection.

The more people in the UK, the more potential victims. Therefore the government should encourage as many healthy British citizens as possible to travel, safely and respectfully, to countries where infection rates are lower – which includes almost every nation on earth.

Instead, the government is choosing to do the opposite. Keeping people in the UK when they want to be elsewhere will increase the number of Covid-19 cases.

The Cornish county councillor responsible for tourism has warned of the harm quarantine may bring this summer.

The policy is also causing immense damage to airlines and holiday companies already reeling after the worst three months in their history.

Quarantine will trigger thousands of job losses. And because it is an open-ended measure, it is also causing emotional distress among holidaymakers who do not know if their trip will go ahead.

What are the mechanics?

Before departing by air, rail or sea to the UK, travellers must fill in a Passenger Locator Form in the 48 hours before they arrive. It includes travel details and contact information so they can be reached if they, or someone they may have been in contact with, develops the disease.

The traveller must specify an address that is either their home; the home of a friend or family member; a hotel, hostel, bed and breakfast accommodation; “or other suitable place”, the rules say.

The Home Office adds: “If you will not be able to safely self-isolate at the place you’re planning to stay, tell Border Force officers when you arrive in the UK. They’ll give you a choice of accommodation to stay at.”

There will be no formal examination upon arrival at the UK border, but spot checks will be carried out to ensure the online form has been completed

In theory the traveller could be fined £100 for failing to complete the form before arrival in England (but only £30 in the other three UK nations, doubled if they fail to pay within two weeks).

In practice, though, if a traveller is unable to register online, there should be an opportunity to complete the form at the arrival point.

The Home Office says: ”Border Force will undertake checks at the border and may refuse entry to any non-British citizen who refuses to comply with these regulations and isn’t resident in the UK.”

Is there any way to shorten the two weeks in self-isolation?

The only way legally to end the 14 days of quarantine is to leave the country again.

You could, for example, go on a city break to Rome, return for a few days of self-isolation, then take a holiday to Portugal, Croatia or another destination that is welcoming British travellers.

You would need to begin a fresh round of two weeks of quarantine on your return.

At present any such journey would breach the current Foreign Office advice against non-essential travel abroad.

Is safe transport provided from the arrival point in the UK?

No. You should ideally travel home in a car driven by someone from the household where you will self-isolate.

Many travellers, though, are likely to use taxis or public transport. The quarantinee is expected to “travel directly to the place at which they are to self-isolate”.

How restrictive will self-isolation be?

Much tighter than lockdown has been for the general population of the UK. The Health Protection (Coronavirus, International Travel) (England) Regulations 2020 (which has parallel legislation in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) says the traveller must remain at the address given.

The Scottish NHS instructs quarantinees: “Stay in a well-ventilated room with a window to the outside that can be opened, separate from other people in your home.

“If you can, you should use a separate bathroom from the rest of the household.”

But elsewhere the self-isolator can use “any garden, yard, passage, stair, garage, outhouse, or other appurtenance of such premises”.

It is possible to leave the address only for some closely specified reasons:

  • to seek medical assistance
  • to attend court or satisfy bail conditions
  • to avoid injury or illness or to escape a risk of harm
  • to attend a funeral of a member of the household, a close family member or a friend (as long as no other member of the household is attending)
  • to move to a different place for self-isolation specified on the Passenger Locator Form, eg from an airport hotel to your final destination
  • to access critical public services, including social services or victim support

There is some confusion over whether the returned traveller may go shopping. In Northern Ireland and Scotland, they are told ”You should not go shopping. If you require help buying groceries, other shopping or picking up medication, you should ask friends or relatives or order a delivery.

But the law in England allows the quarantinee ”to obtain basic necessities such as food and medical supplies for those in the same household (including any pets or animals in the household) where it is not possible to obtain these provisions in any other manner”.

While members of the same household need not themselves self-isolate, the official advice to travellers is: “If you’re at home or staying with friends or family, avoid contact with the people you’re staying with and minimise the time you spend in shared areas.

During quarantine, the arrived travellers ​should not have visitors, including friends and family, unless they are providing essential support.​​

“If you’re staying in a hotel or guest house, you cannot use shared areas such as bars, restaurants, health clubs and sports facilities. Stay 2 metres away from all other guests and staff.”

How will quarantine be enforced?

The home secretary said: “We will not allow a small, reckless minority to endanger us all — so there will be penalties for those who break these mandatory measures.

“Public Health England will set up an assurance service to contact people at random to ensure they understand the requirements and are self-isolating.”

Officials can telephone or call at the nominated address at any time during the 14 days. If the traveller is neither at home nor out with a valid excuse, a £1,000 fixed penalty notice will be issued in England, Wales or Northern Ireland.

In Scotland, the fine is only £480.

But the Metropolitan Police Federation has told The Independent that officers do not have the resources to enforce quarantine.

Michael O’Leary, chief executive of Ryanair, has predicted: “People will simply ignore something which is so hopelessly defective.

”In the unlikely event you are actually called by someone from track and tracing, you could be on a golf course, you could be on a beach, you could be in the supermarket, saying ‘yes, I am complying fully, I am sitting at home quarantining’.”

Who is exempt?

The government has considerably tightened up its list of exemptions. Previously it indicated that a wide range of professions including bus drivers, dentists and police officers could dodge 14 days of self-isolation.

The main exemption is for “international commuters” who can show that they reside in one country but regularly work in the other. “You should also be able to demonstrate that you travel between the two on a minimum of a weekly basis, for example, a season ticket,” says the new law.

However, frequent travellers arriving in Scotland will have to self-isolate for 14 days.

International transit passengers arriving at Heathrow airport will be able to make onward connections as normal. While the rules specifiy travellers should remain airside, in practice since the one way to shorten the 14-day requirement is to leave the country.

People arriving in the UK from the Common Travel Area (CTA: the Republic of Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man) will be exempt – unless they have been outside the CTA at any time in the previous 14 days.

This condition closes the so-called “Dublin dodge”, a loophole that would have allowed passengers to make a quick trip to the Irish capital and claim exemption.

If I travel between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, must I self-isolate?

No, though at present you can travel within the UK (and especially within Northern Ireland) only for essential purposes. A business, family or leisure trip does not count.

Is there an option to take a test on arrival, and so skip quarantine?

No. Other countries have deployed this strategy. Travellers to Austria can take a test at Vienna airport and, if they are coronavirus-free, skip the need to self-isolate. Greece says it will test passengers at random when they arrive. And the Portuguese island of Madeira will test everyone on arrival, free of charge.

But the UK will not offer tests. Nor will Covid-19 certificates issued by foreign countries ahead of the journey be accepted in lieu of self-isolation.

If, after arriving at your self-isolation destination, you develop symptoms and request a test that then proves negative, you are not permitted to end quarantine.

I have a holiday booked this summer and can’t handle a fortnight of self-isolation when I return. Can I cancel?

You can cancel, but legally you are not entitled to a refund. If the travel firm or airline can safely operate your trip and bring you back to the UK, they will have fulfilled their contract. The fact that you would then need to self-isolate is not their problem.

But the travel industry recognises that very few travellers will want to go on holiday if they then are obliged to stay indoors for two weeks. The two biggest holiday companies, Tui and Jet2, were planning to restart operations in mid-June.

They have now cancelled everything up to the start of July.

Any Tui customer who wants certainty can take advantage of the travel firm’s new policy that allows holidaymakers booked until the end of August to postpone without penalty.

Airlines, too, are not legally obliged to provide refunds if you no longer wish to travel. In practice some— such as British Airways — are likely to cancel flights wholesale, allowing you to claim your money back, while others may offer vouchers for future travel.

If the flight goes ahead, you are not entitled to a refund.

Can’t I just claim on travel insurance?

That is doubtful. The existence of a law requiring you to self-isolate on return does not affect the performance of the trip.

How long will the quarantine policy remain in place?

The law applies until 8 June 2021. The conditions that the government cites as justification for the policy are likely to prevail for many months. So, logically, quarantine should probably remain in place for the rest of the year.

But the government has promised to review the policy every three weeks. The entire travel industry and many MPs are furious about the harm the quarantine policy is causing to businesses and individuals, and want it either axed or neutralised.

With medical justification for quarantine at this point so skimpy, and the economic and emotional harm the policy will cause so intense, it is thought unlikely to be renewed — at least before some arrangements are brought in to allow British travellers to visit the most popular countries.

The first renewal date is Monday 29 June. While the policy will notionally be continued, the prime minister has hinted that so-called “air-bridge” arrangements will allow returning holidaymakers from the most popular destinations to be exempt from quarantine.

What are “air bridges”?

“Agreements between countries who both have low transmission rates to recognise each other’s departure screening measures for passengers and removing the need for quarantine measures for incoming passengers” — that is the government’s definition.

When quarantine comes up for review, air-bridge arrangements are likely to be used to justify lifting the obligation for arrivals from the most popular holiday destinations.

Spain, France, Portugal, Italy, Croatia, Greece, Malta, Cyprus and Turkey will all press for exemption, possibly along with the US.

Will last-minute travel become the norm?

Probably. The travel industry believes that no significant fresh outbound holiday sales will be made while the open-ended prospect remains of a fortnight’s mandatory self-isolation on return.

Rationally no one will book a trip a long way ahead knowing that the government can impose arbitrary policies that would scupper travel plans.

When quarantine is finally lifted, can self-isolating travellers simply stop?

No. They are expected to complete their mandatory self-isolation sentence. Many travel industry figures, though, believe that most individuals in this unfortunate position when an end to quarantine is announced will simply abandon isolation.

What needs to happen before foreign holidays become possible again?

These are my five tests:

  1. Has lockdown been eased enough to allow you to reach the UK airport?
  2. Has the Foreign Office lifted its warning against all overseas travel?
  3. Is there an airline prepared to take you?
  4. Will the destination country let you in?
  5. The new condition: can you tolerate self-isolating on your return?

Read more

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