Families are being forced to quarantine in hotels more than 160 kilometres apart as the UK struggles with a shortage of beds for travellers arriving from red-list countries.
One couple now face a bill of £6,000 ($7,931) after they had to split up and complete their 10-day self-isolation period in separate hotels after arriving from South Africa on Monday.
Jennie Bianca, 42, says he is staying in a hotel room in Milton Keynes, about 160km from her husband and six-year-old son, who are in Gatwick.
After hearing the red-list announcement, Ms Bianca said she spent several days trying to book new flights and a family room together on the government-approved hotel quarantine website.
But she was unsuccessful on each occasion, even after contacting customer services of the hotel provider CTM who promised to look into their case.
Faced with the prospect of being stranded abroad over Christmas, Ms Bianca says she was left with no other option than to book quarantine in different cites for her family.
She will now have to pay for both rooms, £2,285 each, and will not get a £350 family discount. Her husband and son are staying a "filthy" room and have not not been allowed outside, she said.
"We've had nothing from the government and we've had to do everything ourselves", she told The National. "I just never knew it would be such a struggle to get back to your own country."
Olivia Blake, the couple’s MP in Sheffield, has described the hotel quarantine situation as a mess and said it was indicative of the government's response to Covid.
"Ministers cannot introduce mandatory hotel quarantine without ensuring that there are enough hotel rooms available", she said in a statement to The National. "The Health Secretary needs to step in and ensure enough family sized quarantine rooms are available as a matter of urgency."
John England, 43, from Hampshire, says he was also unable to book a family room for his wife and their two young children. He said the family must now wait in the county until one becomes available.
On Monday, the UK government pledged to provide extra quarantine hotel rooms for travellers.
British Health Secretary Sajid Javid said he expects the number of hotel rooms available for international quarantine to be doubled this week.
“I know that there has been a spike in demand for these facilities due to the rapid expansion of the red list and that some people have experienced issues returning home,” Mr Javid said.
“However, we are ramping up this capacity as quickly as possible. We’ve already brought several new hotels on board in the past few days and we expect to double the number of rooms that are available this week.
He explained why Nigeria was added to the UK's travel red list from 4am on Monday.
“Analysis from UKHSA [Health Security Agency] shows that at least 21 Omicron cases in England alone are linked to travel from Nigeria, and there’s a strong indication that Omicron is present there," Mr Javid said.
"Nigeria also has very strong travel links with South Africa."
He said pre-departure testing “could have a greater role to play in identifying positive cases before travel” because of new data that shows Omicron could have a shorter window between infection and infectiousness.
“From 4am tomorrow, anyone travelling to the UK from countries that are not on the red list must also show proof of a negative PCR or lateral flow test,” Mr Javid said.
“This applies to any vaccinated travellers, so whether you’re vaccinated or unvaccinated, and anyone aged 12 and above.
“I know that these measures, of course, they will bring disruption, and they will impact people’s plans to spend time with their loved ones, especially over this festive period.
"But we’re taking this early action now so we don’t have to take tougher action later on, and so that we can take every opportunity to prevent more cases from arriving in our country."
Mr Javid said the measures were temporary and would be reviewed along with others, and the House of Commons would be updated “next week”.
He said say there was now “community transmission across multiple regions of England” of the Omicron variant.
“The Omicron variant is continuing to spread here and around the world,” Mr Javid said.
“According to the latest data there are now 261 confirmed cases in England, 71 in Scotland and four in Wales, bringing the total number of confirmed cases across the UK to 336.
“This includes cases with no links to international travel. So we can conclude that there is now community transmission across multiple regions of England.”
He said the government could not be certain whether Omicron would evade Covid vaccines, or how severe a disease it will cause.
“We are learning more about this new variant all the time,” Mr Javid told MPs.
“Recent analysis from the UK Health Security Agency suggests that the window between infection and infectiousness may be shorter for the Omicron variant than for the Delta variant.
"But we don’t yet have a complete picture of whether Omicron causes more severe disease or indeed how it interacts with the vaccines.
“We can’t say for certain at this point whether Omicron has the potential to knock us off our road to recovery.
“We are leaving nothing to chance. Our strategy is to buy ourselves time and to strengthen our defences while our world-leading scientists assess this new variant and what it means for our fight against Covid-19.”
Mr Javid said about 350 military personnel will be posted in England this week to “support the vaccine booster programme”, and that there are more than 100 personnel in Scotland to perform a similar role.
“When the virus adapts, we must adapt too," he said. "We cannot say for certain what Omicron means for our response, but we can say that we’re doing everything in our power to strengthen our national defences."