The government’s “hotel quarantine” plan is under fire after ministers backed down from forcing all travellers to isolate when they arrive in the UK – and failed to say when the crackdown will start.
The move, which will require people to pay thousands of pounds to stay in a room for 10 days, will apply to travellers arriving from 30 countries, including Portugal, all of Latin America and several countries in southern Africa.
Because foreigners are banned from travelling to the UK from those 30 countries, only returning Britons will be affected, with the hunt on for sufficient “capacity” in airport hotels.
Boris Johnson sparked confusion by announcing that 22 countries would be targeted, before the Home Office revealed that it was 8 more than that.
Meanwhile, Priti Patel, the home secretary, announced tougher rules to stop people “going on holiday” and flouting the stay-at-home guidance in the current lockdown.
“We are still seeing people not complying with these rules,” she told MPs, adding that would-be flyers would have to “first make a declaration as to why they need to travel”.
“This reason for travel will be checked by carriers prior to departure and this approach effectively mirrors the checks on arrivals that are already in place with the passenger locator form,” she said.
The shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, accused the government of “lurching from one crisis to another, devoid of strategy”.
“Limiting hotel quarantining to only a limited number of countries from which travel from non-UK residents was already banned means that the home secretary's proposals do not go anywhere near far enough,” he said.
Yvette Cooper, chair of the Commons Home Affairs Committee, warned that “thousands of people each day” would still be arriving in the UK without the quarantine requirements.
“In the first wave, less than 1 per cent of new cases came from China, the overwhelming majority [were] from European countries the government said were low risk at that time,” she said.
And, in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon made clear the SNP was ready to take much tougher actions if it failed to persuade Downing Street to do so.
“If there is no agreement to go further on a four-nations basis, we will be considering going further ourselves and we will set out any such additional measures next week,” the first minister said.
However, the travel industry reacted with horror at even the limited list, with the Board of Airline Representatives demanding a plan for “the safe reopening of international travel”.
Clive Wratten, chief executive of the Business Travel Association, said: “The introduction of quarantine hotels is another death knell for the travel industry as a whole but especially for business travel.
"We question the timing of this announcement and the lack of investment in a long-term strategy to get the UK travelling again, such as pre-departure testing.”
The decision to limit the list to “high risk” areas came despite the prime minister insisting the government was doing “everything we could” to minimise deaths and suffering.
It echoes the current travel ban list, reflecting the new Covid-19 variants from South Africa and Brazil which are being tested for vaccine-resistancy.
However, on Sunday, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, said: “The new variant I really worry about is the one that’s out there that hasn’t been spotted.”
The home secretary was also unable to say how many passengers are expected to be placed in isolation, saying the government was still “working out capacity”.
Unable to give a start date – for a measure under discussion for at least two weeks – she insisted that ministers were “working quickly to bring in these new measures”, adding: “Further details will be put out in due course.”
Significantly, Conservative MPs who have been pushing for an early easing of the lockdown backed the decision to keep the number of targeted countries low.
Graham Brady, chair of the backbench 1922 committee, warned the Commons of “a massive haemorrhaging of jobs and prospects” in the travel industry if the list was extended without financial help.