All travellers entering the UK from abroad will have to take two Covid-19 tests after arriving in the country as the government seeks to bolster its borders against new variants of the disease.
The new system, to be announced as early as Tuesday, will mean all arrivals must have a negative test from before their departure — which is already the case — then take further tests on days two and eight of their self-isolation after entering the UK. Passengers will be responsible for paying for the tests themselves.
The changes mark a significant tightening of the current regime, under which most people arriving in the country self-isolate for 10 days in a private home without having to take any post-flight tests.
At present only those arriving from risky “red list” countries such as South Africa or Brazil will — from February 15 — have to stay in government-mandated hotels for 10 days under close security guard.
The imminent announcement that all passengers will need to take the multiple Covid-19 tests comes as concerns grow among ministers over the threat from new, more virulent mutations of the disease.
Meanwhile, ministers are closer to striking their first deals with hotels to provide quarantine accommodation for passengers arriving from the most risky countries. An announcement is expected on either Tuesday or Wednesday, two weeks after the system was announced, following days of wrangling with the industry.
Downing Street on Monday admitted it still had not signed up any hotels to take part in its new system, under which British residents returning from more than 30 high-risk countries would be bussed to guarded accommodation where they would have to stay for 10 days. Time is running out for the scheme to be operational by the target date next week.
But industry and Whitehall figures said the government was close to signing up a clutch of hotels just outside Heathrow airport and was optimistic of striking more deals with venues within two miles of Manchester, Gatwick, Birmingham and London City airports.
The protracted negotiations are understood to reflect hotel operators’ unhappiness at the government’s refusal to provide revenue guarantees while expecting them to cancel all future bookings.
Hoteliers said the government was offering to pay only for rooms used for quarantining passengers despite requiring that the hotels be open only to such guests, resulting in a potential loss of revenue.
Venues also face having large numbers of empty rooms as the government plans to contract more hotels than required for the expected number of arrivals in case they underestimate how many people will need accommodation.
One industry executive said the lack of notice was also problematic: “It doesn’t give hotels much time if the announcement is Wednesday to do that in a way that won’t upset the [existing] guests who will need new accommodation.”
Hotels are currently permitted to allow key workers and those who must travel for business to stay. “Hotel bosses are not keen on doing this. If they go along with it, it will only be to try to buy some goodwill with ministers,” said one industry figure.
The government resisted pressure to apply its new hotel quarantine to all passengers coming into the UK, instead introducing a more targeted programme for those returning from about 30 “red list” countries with mutant variations of coronavirus.
However, the list is updated every Thursday and could be further extended in the coming weeks, not least given the newfound concerns about the efficacy of certain vaccines against the variant first detected in South Africa.
Meanwhile, Ireland is examining whether its coronavirus travel rules should be tightened after reports that British tourists were avoiding UK quarantine by returning from Middle East holidays via Irish airports.
Officials in Dublin are concerned that loopholes in travel restrictions have opened the potential for the country’s airports to be used as a “back door” by British holidaymakers who would otherwise face quarantine on their return to the UK.
Unlike travellers arriving from other parts of the world, the UK does not require people arriving from Ireland to quarantine because of the common travel area between the two countries. While people flying into Ireland from all countries must produce a negative coronavirus test, that rule does not apply to people transferring to other international flights after arriving in Irish airports.
“The issue has come up,” said a senior Irish official familiar with discussions in Micheál Martin’s government. “They have to look at the issue and see if it is something that needs to be acted on — if it’s being exploited.”
Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, has said the government would act if it found that a “serious problem” had emerged.