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

Simon Calder
Transfer window: passengers changing planes at Heathrow will be exempt from the quarantine policy: Heathrow Airport

Twelve days after the prime minister announced plans to quarantine arrivals to the UK, the home secretary will reveal later today how the mandatory scheme will operate.

Priti Patel will use the daily Downing Street briefing to announce the starting date and details of exemptions from 14 days of self-isolation.

These are the key questions about what it will mean for your travel plans.

What is happening?

From early June – possibly as early as the first of the month – travellers arriving by air, sea or rail will be interviewed on arrival. They must give the address at which they will self-isolate for 14 days, and provide contact details for follow up.

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

The government says: “Now that domestic transmission within the UK is coming under control, and other countries begin to lift lockdown measures, it is the right time to prepare new measures at the border.”

Priti Patel’s announcement will have the immediate effect of deterring British holidaymakers from going abroad.

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

The move comes just as travel businesses were aiming to restart operations. The timing will defeat “Project Lift-off,” and instead trigger the widespread cancellation of flights and holidays while stifling new bookings.

Quarantine will also wipe out inbound tourism and business travel for the early part of the summer.

What are the mechanics?

Every arriving traveller will be presumed to be carrying Covid-19. You must quarantine at home – or, if you don’t have one to go to, “government arranged accommodation” – for two weeks.

Leaving the house for medical treatment will be allowed; shopping for essentials may not be.

How do I get home from the airport: will the government provide safe transport?

No, the current advice will continue to apply: 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.

How will quarantine be enforced?

Inspectors – who may be health officials or police – can call at the nominated address at any time during the 14 days. If the traveller is not at home or out with a valid excuse, they can be fined £1,000.

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.”

How long will the quarantine policy remain in place?

No one knows. The conditions that the government cites as justification for the policy are likely to prevail for many months. So logically quarantine should remain in place for the rest of the year.

But the government has promised to review the policy every three weeks. With medical justification for quarantine at this stage so sketchy, and the economic and emotional harm the policy will cause so intense, it is throught unlikely to last more than six weeks.

Who is exempt?

Travellers within the Common Travel Area, covering the Republic of Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, will be exempt.

Some essential professions, including truck drivers, government officials and medical staff travelling for work, will also escape the obligation to remain at home for two weeks.

There are also last-minute discussions within government about whether to grant exemption to foreign agricultural workers and elite sportsmen and women.

International transit passengers arriving at Heathrow will be able to make connections as normal.

Won’t it cause huge queues on arrival?

No, because the present number of travellers coming into the UK – currently around 7,000 per day, mostly into Heathrow – will dwindle almost to zero.

Any UK-bound traveller who feels quarantine is not for them can simply arrange to arrive in Britain before the end of the month.

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

No. While other countries have deployed this strategy the UK will not offer that possibility. Nor will Covid-19 certificates issued by foreign countries ahead of the journey be accepted in lieu of self-isolation.

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

Legally, no. If the travel firm or airline can safely operate your trip and bring you back to the UK, they 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.

I predict they will cancel hundreds of thousands of packages in June, possibly extending into July. But 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?

No. The existence of a law requiring you to self-isolate on return does not affect the performance of the trip.

Can I book a holiday for later in the year and expect to avoid quarantine?

There is no guarantee, but with many MPs furious about the harm the policy will cause to their constituents, few in the travel industry anticipate that it will remain beyond July.

Does this mean that last-minute travel will become the norm?

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

What happened to the plans for “air bridges” to give wider exemptions?

The transport secretary floated the option of “air bridges” as part of a desperate move to limit the damage.

But Grant Shapps’ proposals for certain nations signing mutual quarantine-free deals with the UK was rebutted by Downing Street.

When quarantine comes up for review, though, 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.

So when quarantine is finally lifted, what will it mean for people who have already started self-isolating: can they just stop?

No. They will be expected to complete their mandatory assignment. Many travel industry figures, though, believe that most people will simply abandon isolation.

People without UK addresses will get “accommodation arranged by the government”. What does this mean?

The government will probably press into service hotels near airports and seaports. There are hundreds of thousands of empty hotel rooms.

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

Could an air bridge salvage your summer holiday?

Coronavirus: Priti Patel to announce 14-day quarantine for UK arrivals

Heathrow demands 14-day quarantine for travellers policy ends in June

Air bridge plan to beat quarantine ‘not government policy’, says No 10

Coronavirus: Quarantine ‘appropriate as UK becomes low-incidence area’