Travellers confined to hotel rooms after arriving in the UK from red-list countries will be allowed to leave early provided they test negative for Covid-19, after ministers bowed to pressure to end the quarantine system.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid on Tuesday announced that the red list would come to an end at 4am on Wednesday, heeding calls from aviation figureheads and travel companies.
This will mean travellers entering Britain from 11 countries, including South Africa and Zimbabwe, will no longer have to spend 10 days quarantining in a designated hotel at a cost of up to £2,285 ($3,030) each.
The change threw into limbo the fate of hundreds of travellers currently in quarantine but it was later confirmed they will be allowed to leave early provided they test negative for the coronavirus.
On Wednesday, the UK government said consideration was being given to those who had paid for the hotel to be reimbursed for days outstanding if they were leaving before the end of their confinement.
“We're working urgently to make arrangements for them including reimbursement for any unused parts of the quarantine period so that work is ongoing,” a senior Whitehall official said.
The programme, which has been heavily criticised by participants, includes about one hour each day for exercise in the fresh air under the supervision of security personnel. Guests are served food in disposable containers in their rooms and are not allowed to have physical contact with the outside world.
UK Health Security Agency official Jonathan Mogford told the Commons Transport Committee there have been “roughly 5,000 guests through in this round of red listing”.
He said the latest figures show that “nearly 5 per cent of people in the hotels are positive”, and “at least 1 per cent are Omicron-positive but probably as much as 3 per cent”.
This would mean 250 people have tested positive for Covid-19 in quarantine and up to 150 of them had the Omicron variant.
Suzanne Styles, 56, and her husband Chris Styles, 52, have been quarantining in a hotel near Gatwick Airport since flying to the UK from South Africa on December 8.
Since the government announced they were scrapping the red list, the couple have been eagerly waiting to see if they can cut short their 10-day stay.
“I hope we can go home and do lateral flow tests. I would rather have an ankle tag and isolate at home than spend it in a hotel,” Mrs Styles told The National.
After arriving at the hotel late on their first night, the couple were awoken by a fire alarm early the next morning and ordered to evacuate. She said hotel staff and security guards appeared unsure about procedures crammed into an outdoors space while the incident was dealt with.
“It was absolute chaos. Some people were not wearing masks and there was no social distancing,” Mrs Styles said.
The business owner from Waterlooville in Hampshire, south England, said she and her husband have since refused to take advantage of the daily exercise time offered to quarantine guests.
“We have imposed a double quarantine on ourselves by not leaving our room when we are allowed to because we don’t feel secure,” she said.
Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, welcomed the end of the red list but said it “doesn’t go nearly far enough” and called on the government to roll back testing rules for travellers.
Under new rules introduced after Omicron was first detected in the UK in November, all travellers coming to England must take a post-arrival PCR test on day two.
“If the red list is not necessary, given that Omicron is established here at home, then neither are the costly emergency testing and isolation measures imposed on even fully vaccinated travellers, which again put us completely at odds with the rest of Europe,” Mr Alderslade said.
“It is testing that is the deterrent to travel, not the relatively limited red list. Government has admitted that the measures introduced are disastrous for the travel sector, and the science says they aren’t now required.
“The health secretary says he wants to act quickly to remove unnecessary restrictions, and we implore him to make good on this by scrapping testing as soon as possible, otherwise the key Christmas and New Year booking period will be fatally undermined.
“This is make or break for UK aviation and if government is unable to row back from these restrictions over the New Year, it will need to step in with further economic support for a sector that again has been singled out.”
John Holland-Kaye, chief executive of Heathrow Airport, said the end of the red list was “good news” for the travel industry and said ministers should build on that by letting people fly without the need for Covid tests.
“We want to see the other tests taken away as well because that way we can start to get back to normal and give people a more predictable journey into the UK,” he told Sky News.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said about 9,000 people in England have tested positive for Omicron, while 10 patients are in hospital, none of whom are on ventilators.
“What we do know is that it is doubling about every two to three days, which is incredibly fast,” Mr Shapps told Sky News. “And the thing about doubling rates like that is you can go from seemingly almost nothing, of course, to suddenly it becoming a thing that overwhelms you.”
He said the Omicron hospital admission rate would probably rise in the coming weeks because it is lagging behind the infection rate.
Asked about reports suggesting up to a million Britons could be self-isolating over the Christmas period because they have tested positive for Omicron, Mr Shapps said: “We hope to avoid that.
“I hope it is the case that all these steps we are taking — most significant of all getting people [booster shots] — means that we do not end up in that kind of situation,” he said.
Unvaccinated adults who have come into contact with a Covid case — whether Omicron or not — are also required to self-isolate for 10 days.
Dr Angelique Coetzee, a GP who also heads South Africa's Medical Association, called the UK’s approach to Omicron alarmist.
Mr Shapps said he was “surprised to hear that” and insisted the restrictions and rules in place in England were measured. He said it would be a “frightening thing” if no rules were put in place and Omicron turned out to be worse than predicted.