Ministers are in talks with hotel chains over plans to force UK arrivals to quarantine at airports, it was claimed today.
Travellers could be prevented from using their own accommodation under the proposals being put together by the government. Using GPS tags to ensure compliance is also believed to have been considered.
The draconian ‘quarantine hotel’ system, similar to that used in Australia and New Zealand, is a prospect amid rising fears about the spread of Covid variants around the globe.
Arrivals would potentially have to pay for their stays while they self-isolate for 10 days. There are reports today that negotiations are already taking place with hotel chains.
The powerful Covid O Cabinet sub-committee is due to discuss the ideas over the coming days – although a final decision is not likely until next week.
Meanwhile, Environment Secretary George has refused to rule out even more drastic action, with foreigners barred from coming to the UK altogether.
Asked about the possibility, Mr Eustice told Sky News: ‘We always keep these things under review. And it has been considered.
‘There is concern at the moment about the number of mutant strains.’
Any new restrictions would be a further blow to the beleaguered travel industry and put the holiday plans of millions at risk.
It comes as Britain’s airports are already struggling to cope with demand, with passengers queuing for hours yesterday to get through passport control at Heathrow as the border situation worsened.
The lines were so long staff were said to have handed out free water to exhausted travellers just hours after the Home Office insisted there were no staffing issues and people were moving through in ‘good time’.
Amid growing doubts over the summer holiday season, the Cabinet’s Covid operations committee will thrash out how to tighten border controls. Passengers are pictured queuing at Heathrow Airport on Thursday
Huge queues prompted anger from passengers and questions over the number of staff at work
How would ‘quarantine hotels’ and GPS tracking work?
Ministers are scrambling to upgrade the border quarantine system amid fears the rules are being flouted.
Civil servants have been ordered to study the ‘managed isolation’ arrangements used by countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Singapore.
Under those schemes, arrivals from abroad must stay in quarantine hotels for 14 days at their own expense.
Passengers are transferred direct from airports to the hotels, and largely confined to their rooms – with the authorities monitoring to check no-one leaves.
The systems have been credited with stopping Covid cases being imported.
However, some airlines have stopped flying to Australia and New Zealand as the routes are not sustainable – with many citizens stranded abroad as a result.
Officials have also looked at the arrangements in Poland, where isolating individuals face ‘enhanced monitoring’.
That includes being contacted once a day and made to send a picture of themselves at the location where they are meant to be quarantining.
The pictures are validated using facial-recognition technology and GPS data.
However, the option is thought to have been rejected as too intrusive and difficult to implement on scale.
Rishi Sunak’s Treasury and Grant Shapps’ Department for Transport are pushing against new travel measures over the ‘severe’ impact they would have on aviation, one of the hardest hit sectors during the pandemic, and the wider economy.
But Priti Patel and Matt Hancock are eager to enforce harsher rules to stop mutant strains from entering the country, potentially undermining the vaccine operation.
Options on the table include imposing the ‘quarantine hotels’ for all arrivals, or for ‘high risk’ countries. The ‘test and release’ scheme, under which people can cut their isolation to five days by having a second test, could also be suspended.
But one senior source told The Telegraph: ‘Once in place, the restrictions would be difficult to exit, as Australia and New Zealand have found and their economies are suffering as a result. Nor have their quarantines and managed self-isolation proved watertight.’
Marriott today denied that was in talks with the government about using its hotels for quarantine.
World Health Organisation Health systems development consultant Alvaro Garbayo was so infuriated with the chaos at Heathrow yesterday he attempted to contact Matt Hancock on Twitter to complain.
He asked him: ‘Border control at Heathrow a complete mess, a crowd queuing for more than one hour with not enough space to keep safe distance. Just making sure we all get infected before entering UK? Proactively pushing for herd immunity?
‘And just to make it more likely they hand over water for free so people remove their masks. No special arrangements for people with children, people with disabilities, elders… and we get surprised with our numbers?’
The self-service e-gates at Heathrow Airport are currently closed – with border guards having to check all paperwork and passports manually.
A Home Office spokeswoman said on Wednesday: ‘Border Force has the necessary staff needed to fulfil its vital function of keeping the border secure and protecting the public.
People who have travelled from multiple destinations queue in a system difficult to space
‘Even with the increased Border Force spot checks on arrival, with passengers liable for a fine of £500 for failing to comply with the new rules, the vast majority of people have been moving through the UK border in good time.’
The Home Secretary said last night it was ‘far too early to speculate’ about whether foreign holidays would be possible this summer.
In a further sign of the disruption ahead, it emerged that EU leaders are discussing plans to close the borders to British travellers to slow the spread of the new Covid variant first identified in Kent.
Miss Patel, Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove are pushing for arrivals in the UK to be required to stay at ‘isolation centres’ to complete their ten-day quarantine.
Luggage piled up as the enormous backlog saw passengers unable to get through to collect
In practice, this is likely to mean hotels, although it could include isolation at state-run premises as happened with travellers from Wuhan in the early days of the pandemic last year.
However, one Government source said a final decision on the move had not been taken and might not be finalised until next week.
Around 90 powerful Tory MPs and Peers have said they would accept the closure of travel corridors, but it would be a ‘devastating blow’ for the aviation industry.
Leaked documents revealed last night that the Home Office even considered requiring travellers to wear electronic tags on arrival in the UK, like criminals released early from jail do.
The idea was rejected because of concerns about legal challenges and the potential strain on the monitoring system.
The move to tighten the borders comes amid fears that new strains of the virus emerging abroad could undermine the effectiveness of the vaccination programme.
The government decided that a negative COVID test was required within 72 hours of travel
Home Secretary Priti Patel said last night it was ‘far too early to speculate’ about whether foreign holidays would be possible this summer
The scenes come as it was predicted the government would introduce quarantine hotels
One Whitehall source said Mr Hancock was ‘paranoid’ about the threat from abroad, adding: ‘We are rolling out the vaccine now much faster than many other places. That is the key to unlocking in the UK.’
Mr Hancock told MPs the Government would be ‘very cautious on travel’ for now to stop the arrival of Covid variants against which vaccinces might not be so effective.
Miss Patel, who is pushing for tougher border restrictions, said the Government has already moved to close all travel corridors and banned all travel from South America following the emergence of a new strain in Brazil.
She confirmed that further restrictions are being kept under review.
Ministers hope using hotels for isolation, as in Australia, will improve compliance with quarantine rules but have ruled out banning all inbound travel by foreign nationals.
Occupational therapist Libby Pannett told how she returned to the UK after her mother’s funeral in New Zealand where there were no cases of coronavirus.
Describing the scene she faced after her long haul flight, the 52-year-old said: ‘It was awful coming through Heathrow, the queues are horrific. There were probably 1,000 people in front of me because they aren’t doing the fast track, they are not letting kids go through first either so there are all these screaming kids.
‘At passport control they have to check all your paperwork, it’s awful. There are not enough passport control officers and people were screaming out ‘get more staff.’ I thought there was going to be a real riot, some people were pushing their kids through saying ‘let this baby through’.’
Mrs Pannett, from Berkshire, added: ‘We have to have a test to come back to the UK now and that was really difficult because you had to do it in 72 hours. That was hard coming from New Zealand as there is a time difference. It cost me €276, they are ripping people off because they know you need to do it.
‘Getting the results was really stressful because I had to fly internally to get to Auckland and they had added in the time, it was running down the clock and it was over a Sunday when nobody works too.
‘I was worried that results wouldn’t come back in time. Emirates Airlines told me that when I landed in the UK it would be over the 72 hour period so I could run the risk of getting a fine in the UK or stay for another 12 hours and get another test in Dubai.
‘I had to make that choice, to risk the fine or stay in Dubai – it was really stressful and I was lucky I got through.’
But 27-year-old Salma was another arrival who spoke of the lack of passport control officers.
Landing from visiting her family in Cairo, the doctor said: ‘There were not many officers at border control so it took time to get everybody through. There were a lot of people in the queue but hopefully we were maintaining a safe-ish distance. It’s not the most comfortable of situations I’ve been in, it could be better definitely.
Nurse Anila Dominic, 27, said ‘there were not enough people’ at the passport checks
Libby Pannett, 52, an occupational therapist, said people were screaming ‘get more staff’
Q&A: Do I need to have proof of a negative Covid-19 test when I arrive in Britain – and what standards must it meet?
What are the new rules for UK arrivals?
All of the travel corridors were scrapped yesterday, so arrivals from every destination will need to self-isolate for ten days, or receive a negative result from a Covid-19 test taken at least five days after they enter the UK.
Do I need to get a negative test when I arrive in the UK?
Yes, all arrivals into England – including British citizens – must test negative for Covid-19 up to 72 hours before leaving the country of departure. Your test will also be checked by the airline before you board a plane abroad.
What will you have to present at the UK border?
Border Force officials are carrying out spot checks on those arriving by air, land or sea – but they have so far been checking all arrivals, according to passengers.
Your Covid-19 negative test results must be presented in either English, French or Spanish. Translations are not accepted, and you must provide the original certificate.
The test result must be provided either as a physical printed document or via email or text message, which can be shown on a mobile phone. This must include:
- your name, matching it on your travel documents
- your date of birth or age
- the result of the test
- the date the test sample was collected or received by the test provider
- the name of the test provider and their contact details
- the name of the test device
Anyone arriving without a test result that includes all of the above information will be committing a criminal offence which could see them receive a £500 fine.
What test must you have?
The test must meet standards of ≥97% specificity and ≥80% sensitivity at viral loads above 100,000 copies/ml. The Government says this could include tests such as:
- a nucleic acid test, including a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test or derivative technologies, including loop-mediated isothermal amplification (Lamp) tests
- an antigen test, such as a test from a lateral flow device.
Will you have to prove your test meets requirements?
Yes. The Government says it is your responsibility to ensure a test meets minimum standards for sensitivity, specificity and viral load details – so you must check with your test provider that it meets those requirements.
You may need proof in the form of a letter from a test provider detailing its specificity and sensitivity levels.
What happens if I don’t have the correct documents?
New arrivals who flout the rules will face a minimum £500 fine while their flight operator will also be fined.
The passenger will then be let on their way without further action, but will still have to quarantine for ten days like everyone else arriving in the UK.
Separately, arrivals into England who do not self-isolate can face fines between £1,000 and £10,000.
What is the difference between the tests?
PCR tests, nasal and throat swab tests normally take between 12 and 48 hours to return results.
Lamp tests can return results in two hours, and lateral flow tests can generate results in less than 30 minutes.
Whichever test it is must meet the required performance standards listed by the Government.
Border Force agents will check that the information required is present on the notification. Provided the test meets the set criteria, then it will be accepted. If it does not, you could be fined – even with a negative test result.
What are the concerns over lateral flow tests?
There are fears that lateral flow tests might not be as reliable as PCR tests. But Innova makes a lateral flow test which has a sensitivity of more than 95 per cent for high viral loads – meeting UK Government requirements.
A trial of one lateral flow test used by the Government found that it detected 79 per cent of cases when administered by a trained professional but only 40 per cent if someone is self-swabbing. This is significantly lower than the more expensive but slower PCR tests which detect 70 to 99 per cent of positive cases.
Passengers are responsible for ensuring their test meets requirements and may be asked to provide proof.
Is there a specific list of accepted tests?
No. The Government does not provide a list of approved providers or tests worldwide. The passenger has to check that the test that they use meets the standards.
What are the exemptions?
It applies to arrivals who began their journeys in every country of the world, with the following exceptions:
- Northern Ireland
- Isle of Man
- Falkland Islands
- St Helena
There will also be an exemption until 4am on January 21 for people who began their journey in:
- Antigua and Barbuda
- St Lucia
There are also limited exemptions for the likes of hauliers, young children and train crew members.
Which countries are subject to travel bans?
Travel to and from all of South America, Portugal and Cape Verde was banned from 4am last Friday.
British and Irish nationals as well as people with residency rights will be exempt, but will have to self-isolate for ten days with their household on returning from any countries on the banned list.
A similar ban was put into place for South Africa on December 23 last year, after another new variant was identified by scientists. On January 9, the rules were also applied to Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Eswatini, Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho, Mozambique, Angola, Seychelles and Mauritius.
What are the rules on travel from South Africa?
Anyone arriving into the UK who has been in or transited through South Africa in the previous ten days will not be permitted entry to the UK. But British people will still be able to enter via indirect routes from South Africa.
Are there any differences for the US?
There are no specific differences for travellers arriving from the US, although it is understood some airlines are placing their own requirements on passengers.
The US Embassy in the UK states: ‘The test must be a viral test (NAAT or antigen test) to determine if you are currently infected with Covid-19. Travellers should avoid the antibody tests which look for prior infection.’
‘We had to get a test in Egypt before returning to the UK, I was worried about getting the test on time and that I would miss my flight. I was worried about the test I had, whether it was legitimate enough for them or whether they needed something extra like a government seal on it, that was stuff I had to think about.
‘In the space of 18 days I have had two tests and I need to get another one in the next five days so I don’t have to self isolate because I need to get back to work, I don’t have enough annual leave for that.’
Adult nursing student Mohamed Akram explained that he started running with his luggage after he landed at Heathrow to get ahead of the crowds of travellers heading for border control with their forms.
Having landed from Egypt, the 24-year-old said: ‘It was a bit busy on the borders here. I actually jogged from my flight so I didn’t have to wait for so long but when I looked back the queue was so long.
‘Most people were distancing, at least I did it, that is what matters. It took 48 hours to get my test results and thank God it came out as a negative.’
Returning from an extended trip to see his parents in Bangalore, India, after his flight was cancelled at the beginning of the new year, Athmeeya Rao claimed the mandatory test for UK-bound travellers should have come sooner.
The 32-year-old Boeing Defence employee said: ‘I had to have a test in India before flying to the UK, I just went to a hospital and it was quite straightforward. I got the results within six hours or so.
‘Once we landed at Heathrow there was a big queue at immigration as there were not that many officers. They were taking longer as they explained to people that they had to quarantine themselves for 10 days and other checks to see they had the right passenger forms.
‘I think for kids and families the queue is difficult but it wasn’t too crowded as we all had to distance. I think the mandatory tests to get back into the UK should have been done before, sooner than now.
‘It started when people were coming from Spain and Italy in the summer last year, they should have implemented it then but it’s better late than never.
‘There were a couple of passengers in India who did not have the pdf copy of their test, they just had the negative test result on a text message which didn’t count. I’m not sure if they were left behind or have to do a test once they got to the UK,’ he added.
Queuing outside the Heathrow testing centre with a dozen others were seamen Tomas Kotlaga aged 50 years and work colleague 58-year-old Wieslaw Frednczak.
The pair were awaiting a rapid flow test before their flight back home to Poland today.
They said: ‘We booked a fast Covid test at the Heathrow testing centre before our flight departs to Amsterdam and on to Poland today. We should get our results within 30 minutes.
‘We don’t understand why we must have the test, because we have been effectively quarantining at sea. We work four weeks on the ship and then four weeks at home, we come here often for work.’
Nurse Anila Dominic who had flown from India waited for 45 minutes before she could pass through border control. The 27-year-old said: ‘I had to wait nearly 45 minutes. There were not enough people, that is why it took a long time. If there were more people there to check it would be easier for passengers. They were asking for cover test, the passenger locator form and my passport.’
Simlairly, Physics PhD student Megha Emerse – who had travelled from Kerala in Southern India – said: ‘I was a little bit tense because I didn’t know all of the new rules and procedures but it was fine and everything was explained.
‘The queues weren’t good, I had to wait an hour. But it was calm and everyone was distancing,’ the 26-year-old University of Nottingham student added.
But there has emerged a worrying trend for people just to accept a financial punishment rather than to hand their information to officials.
Lucy Moreton, professional officer for ISU, the union for borders, immigration and customs workers, said she had heard reports of some arrivals choosing to pay the fine because they don’t want to give their personal details on the locator form.
But border officials are powerless if it is a British citizen.
She said: ‘We have people landing and choosing the fine instead, it’s not common but it does happen.
‘We can speculate that it is because they don’t for some reason want the UK government to have their personal details.
‘We can’t detain or arrest them if they have a right of entry into the UK. We can only refuse people who don’t have right of entry.’ Those flouting the rules face fines of between £200 and £6,400.
On Monday there were chaotic scenes as arrivals queued for up to two hours at the border at Heathrow airport before being let through, due to the extra documents border guards need to check.
Ms Moreton said: ‘There was a little bit of a moment yesterday when Border Force did allow queues to build up which shouldn’t have happened, but when you’re seeing documents for the first time with no background it does make it slower and with the urge to try and check everything and keep variant viruses out of the UK, we checked too many.
‘But then on the other hand maybe we should be checking all of them.’ Fines for not having a proper test are issued as fixed penalty notices and do not stay on a criminal record.’
But they continued to face delays after landing in the UK as officials checked each passenger arriving had a negative test – even though they will have all already been checked by their airline when boarding a flight in a foreign country.
Passengers can be fined a minimum of £500 for not complying with the rules, but the Home Office confirmed today that they are then let on their way – meaning dozens of people with Covid-19 could have been let into the UK since the rules were brought in.
However they must still follow the rules on quarantining for ten days like all arrivals into the UK – and those who breach those regulations can be fined up to £10,000.
The fines for not having a proper test are issued as fixed penalty notices and do not stay on a criminal record.
The Home Office has not yet revealed whether those fined were penalised for having no test at all or for their test certificate not fulfilling the required criteria.
Many passengers were also surprised by long queues, after they had already been checked by their airlines when boarding flights abroad – with some saying the carriers were being the ‘strictest’ in enforcing the rules in terms of people maintaining social distancing.
While official figures for arrivals at Heathrow are not yet available, tens of thousands of people are estimated to be coming in to the airport every day at the moment – after about 35,000 a day arrived last month.
Queues again built up yesterday in Heathrow’s immigration hall with some travellers reporting having to wait up to an hour before their documentation was checked at Terminal Two, and up to 30 minutes at Terminal Five.
All the electronic passport gates were closed forcing overseas as well as British passport holders to undergo a face-to-face check. British and European Union passport holders were funnelled into one queue while other passport holders into another.
They had to present their passports, a negative test – in most cases a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) – and locator form listing where their mandatory ten-day quarantine will take place in Britain.
Staff instructed arrivals to keep a 6ft (2m) distance from each other but passengers said people ended up facing each other and cramming together.
Initially, only four officials were checking paperwork but as queues lengthened an additional four Border Force staff were brought in to help.
Molly Jarvis, who arrived on an overnight flight from Atlanta, Georgia, told MailOnline at Heathrow: ‘Lots of people ended up facing each other as they waited.
Passengers arrive at London Heathrow Airport after the new rules on Covid-19 tests came in
Noelia Moreno (left) and Cristina Torrance (right) both arrived at London Heathrow Airport’s Terminal Five. Ms Torrance said she took a £40 Antigen test before leaving Seville and arriving on a British Airways flight.
Marissa Leo, a student arriving at London Heathrow’s Terminal Five from Chicago, said she spent 30 minutes queuing to show her documents to immigration officials. She said: ‘I had to show the PCR test and locator form but it was all very smooth’
A passenger leaves Heathrow Airport’s Terminal Two this morning with all arrivals having to present negative Covid-19 test
Air passengers wait for a lift in the international arrivals hall at London Heathrow Airport’s Terminal Two this morning
‘I was a bit concerned about the social distancing and glad to get out. All the e-gates were closed and when I arrived there were only four people at the passport checks. Another four came out.’
Ms Jarvis, a US citizen who lives in London, said the official looked at the time and date of her negative PCR test, adding: ‘They were very thorough and wanted to check what day I had taken the test.’
Aviation expert Julian Bray told MailOnline: ‘It’s been flagged up for ages that anybody coming into the country has got to have the right paperwork and has got to have the negative test. I understand the fines they are handing out are as a minimum because I heard earlier that it’s anything between £500 and £1,000.
‘They can come in but they’re going to have to isolate for ten days. They have been told to isolate for ten days so there’s no point (in having a test) then because the idea of the pre-flight test, which has to be done 72 hours in advance of the flight, is that it’ll give the airline an idea of whether they’ve had the test or not.
‘But it’s surprising the airlines didn’t pick up on the deficiencies. The ground crews, quite often they’re a separate company, and they’re hired in. They’re not actually airline employees.
‘If they’re tasked with checking the paperwork, it sounds like there’s a deficiency in the paperwork, so they might have had the test but they weren’t given the right paperwork, which comes back to the fact that the Department for Transport directions are not that clear. The whole situation has been very shoddy, the way it’s been rolled out.’