The UK government is set to introduce mandatory quarantine for international arrivals, with ministers divided on whether it should be imposed on all passengers or only those arriving from countries with new strains of Covid-19.
Boris Johnson has acknowledged that tougher border restrictions are required following concerns that new strains of Covid-19 could rapidly spread from international travellers. Travel bans have already been introduced for South Africa and Brazil.
Anyone travelling to the UK must currently test negative for Covid-19 72 hours prior to travel and then self-isolate at home for 10 days. The “test to release” scheme allows passengers to leave after five days if they test negative for coronavirus.
The prime minister is likely to agree to quarantine in a hotel, but no decision has been taken on whether this will be required for all arrivals or whether it will be decided on a country-by-country basis.
Travel industry insiders say government departments have held meetings with representatives of major hotel chains in recent days about how their hotels could be used for quarantine arrivals.
The cabinet’s Covid operations committee will meet on Tuesday to decide when and how to introduce hotel quarantine, along with other options for tightening the UK’s borders, including whether to impose a blanket ban on all arrivals and departures.
According to government officials, health secretary Matt Hancock and home secretary Priti Patel are arguing all arrivals should face quarantine, while transport secretary Grant Shapps and chancellor Rishi Sunak believe it should be more selective.
A final decision will be made by Mr Johnson. One cabinet minister said: “my instinct is that the prime minister does not want to lose the progress we've made with vaccination, but I don’t think he’s fully made up his mind yet on whether to go with a blanket quarantine”.
A Whitehall official involved in the discussions said the case for universal quarantine was strong. “We got rid of travel corridors for this reason. All it takes is one person carrying a new mutant strain. If you don’t do it for everyone, it basically makes it pointless.”
Under the measures, passengers would be required to pay for their 10-day hotel stay. Although the scheme would not be introduced immediately, ministers are eager to tackle the threat of more variants entering the UK.
Mr Hancock on Sunday warned that the UK “can't risk the progress we have made” in tackling coronavirus and “we have got to be cautious at the borders”.
Introduction of hotel quarantine would have a significant impact on the travel and aviation sector, and lead to further calls for financial assistance. Paul Charles, chief executive of travel company The PC Agency, urged ministers to set out the costs of quarantine.
“The government must publish an economic impact report before introducing any such measures and outline an exit plan,” he said. “The damage to the aviation and travel sector could be considerable, which is why those assessments are urgently needed.”
Meanwhile Mr Hancock admitted Covid-19 transmission was a “long way from being low enough” to consider lifting England’s lockdown. “The goal is to lift the restrictions as soon as possible. I have said before, we are going to have a great British summer,” he told the BBC on Sunday.