With Britain imposing mandatory hotel quarantine from visitors from dozens of countries including the UAE, the toll on families is beginning to mount.
For Imran Ellam, the UAE’s inclusion on the UK’s “red list” is more than a quarantine measure but an impediment to his desire to ensure the welfare of his elderly mother.
The Abu Dhabi resident cannot easily pop back to see his mother Sarah, who has Alzheimer’s disease, and that is causing him anguish.
"Law-abiding citizens who only need to get on a plane for compassionate reasons are suffering," he told The National.
“The inability to go and see one’s own mother in bad health has no doubt caused significant distress to myself and many others in the same situation, whether it be a parent or any other close family member – a distress that is not easily explicable and that one would not wish to live with in a worst-case scenario.”
Any hope Mr Ellam and many more British residents like him had about hotel quarantine measures quickly being reversed as UK infection rates plummet and the country starts easing lockdown restrictions are unlikely to be realised in the weeks ahead.
Mr Ellam said the 10-day hotel quarantine made the trip “very complicated” and questioned whether the government was considering individual circumstances.
“The UK government cannot think a one-size blanket approach fits all,” he said.
Instead of loosening travel restrictions as the number of daily Covid-19 cases and deaths fall, UK ministers say the prospect of international travel is unlikely until after summer, while scientists say border controls need to be more strict.
The ban in the UK on overseas trips was due to end on May 17. But concern about new coronavirus variants is increasing as case numbers surge in Europe, forcing the continent’s major economies into new lockdowns.
In France, about 10 per cent of new infections involve the variant first identified in South Africa.
British health officials are understood to have warned Health Secretary Matt Hancock that they have traced new variants in the UK to countries not on the red list of travel-ban countries, including France, Germany and the US.
Adviser to the government Prof Kamlesh Khunti, of the University of Leicester, said the UK was risking another lockdown if it loosened border controls.
“It’s been a hard lockdown – we are doing so well. We cannot jeopardise this now,” he said.
“Our rates are coming down, our vaccination rate is fantastic and the biggest fear we have is new variants against which the vaccines don’t work as well.”
He said the UK needed to learn from the experiences of last summer, when new cases were introduced from the continent.
“We knew right at the beginning of the pandemic that our border control wasn’t good. We had people coming in from Spain and Italy and that increased the rates in the UK, and in the summer we had more cases come in,” he said.
“We cannot allow that now. Does this risk another lockdown? Absolutely.”
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Prime Minister Boris Johnson indicated that Britain could add France, a major UK trading partner, to the red list.
“People should be under no illusions that it would have consequences,” he said.
“We will take a decision, no matter how tough, to interrupt that trade and to interrupt those flows if we think that it is necessary to protect public health and stop new variants coming in – and it may be that we have to do that very soon.”
But British expatriates believe more exemptions are required for citizens who need to return home for reasons such as attending funerals or caring for ill family members.
“For a more equitable solution, I would urge the UK government to look into alternatives and in cases where we have had both doses of the vaccine, and are only going for an emergency, to allow us to quarantine at our own homes,” Mr Ellam said.
Tracey Connelly, who lives in Dubai, wants to return to the UK to care for her 89-year-old mother, who has dementia.
She will leave Dubai on Saturday for Turkey, where she will spend 11 days before heading to London on April 7.
Ms Connelly will avoid hotel quarantine in the UK but she acknowledged her trip was risky as British authorities could decide to add Turkey to the red list.
"My mother, who is 89, was recently diagnosed with early dementia and due to Covid and lockdown in the UK, no one is able to visit her or keep an eye on her," she told The National.
“She was recently in hospital after a fall at home where she had a cut to her head and had to be admitted for a few days to be monitored and have stitches. She resides on her own in the family home in west London. I need to return to look after her.”
Ms Connelly said the cost of £1,750 ($2,399) for one adult to stay in hotel quarantine was too expensive.
“Many people cannot afford this. The UK government should be considering alternative schemes, especially if someone is fully vaccinated. I am more than happy to spend 10 days self-isolating at my mother’s address,” she said.
Janine Thompson, another Briton living in the UAE, said the travel restrictions made it difficult for her to see her autistic son.
“They would force me to stay in a hotel for 10 days at huge cost, just to see him. None of this makes sense,” she said.
Paul Charles, chief executive of The PC Agency travel consultancy, said it was unlikely the UAE would soon be removed from the UK’s red list, partly because of the country’s status as a transit stop.
He said Portugal was removed from the list after cases per 100,000 people dropped below 100.
“It’s going to be a few weeks yet before the UAE is taken off,” he said.
Britain’s Department for Transport said authorities were constantly reviewing the list.
“The decisions to add or remove countries from the red list are made in direct response to scientific and medical data, which represents an increased risk to UK public health and an increased risk of community transmission of Covid-19 variants of concern identified in those countries,” a spokeswoman said.
There are 35 countries on the list, including all South American nations and parts of southern Africa.
Government guidance says that exemption from hotel quarantine is only granted in “certain limited circumstances” for key workers.
“This exemption will only be granted on a case-by-case basis, in exceptional circumstances, where the work is sufficiently urgent and critical that undertaking a managed quarantine period is not possible,” the UK government said.