Quarantine hotels set to be introduced to limit spread of coronavirus variants
By Harriet Line
Passengers arriving in England from high-risk coronavirus hotspots look set to be made to quarantine in hotels to limit the spread of new variants.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson will discuss the proposals – designed to ensure people follow self-isolation rules – with senior ministers at the “Covid Operations” committee on Tuesday.
Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi warned that the country needs to be “very careful” as new strains emerge, and said an announcement on the quarantine plans would be made later.
He told Sky News: “There will be an announcement on this issue later on today, so I can only say to you that it is the right thing to do, because I am the Vaccines Minister, that as we vaccinate more of the adult population, if there are new variants like the South African or the Brazilian variants, we need to be very careful.
“We acted on those very quickly and of course dealt with travel from those countries, and from Portugal and elsewhere, rapidly so it is important we continue to review our border policy and an announcement will be made when a decision has been taken.
“And of course the industry itself will be engaged with heavily, including (Health Secretary) Matt Hancock engaging with the industry to explain the decision making at health, as well as of course the business department with the Business Secretary.”
Despite reports suggesting it could take up to three weeks to implement the policy – partly due to the logistical challenge of arranging accommodation for thousands of arrivals – the head of a major hotel chain said they could mobilise “within 24 to 48 hours”.
Rob Paterson, chief executive of Best Western Great Britain, told BBC Breakfast: “Through our project with the NHS supporting discharge patients, we’ve got the protocols and the whole infection control management side of things taken care of.
“We could turn this around within 24 to 48 hours for an open hotel, and a bit longer for an unopened hotel.”
Various options for quarantining arrivals are said to be on the table, but Whitehall sources suggested that ministers may opt for a more limited system after aviation leaders warned that introducing tougher border rules would be “catastrophic” for the industry.
In a joint statement, the Airport Operators Association and Airlines UK insisted the country already has “some of the highest levels of restrictions in the world” and that introducing tougher rules would be “catastrophic”.
Reports have suggested that arrivals in England would have to cover the price of quarantining in hotels for 10 days, potentially setting them back more than £1,000.
The BBC said the requirement to isolate in a hotel would apply to arrivals from most of southern Africa and South America, as well as Portugal.
However, Conservative former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said the proposals might need to go further than applying only to those arriving from countries where new variants of Covid-19 have been discovered.
Pressed on whether he supports a universal approach to quarantining international arrivals, Mr Hunt told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think it is a big logistical exercise to do that and it is not going to be possible to do it overnight anyway.
“But I think the real question is buying us enough time, and we don’t know which countries these variants are arising in. We have much better genomic sequencing in this country than in most other countries – in fact, any other country – so we are better at tracing these things than other places.
“But I think we just have to be very cautious, because if we can get this vaccine distribution up to sufficient levels, we can really cut down the transmission in this country and transform the battle against the virus.
“If we do have to go further, I hope it would only have to be for a temporary period.”
Ministers in Northern Ireland are expected to discuss the issue of quarantine at a Stormont Executive meeting on Tuesday.
Direct flights to the UK from South Africa, Brazil and Portugal have already been suspended, but British residents have been permitted to return through indirect routes and then self-isolate at home.
Australia became one of the first countries to introduce mandatory hotel quarantine in March, while the practice is also observed in China, New Zealand, India, Singapore, the Philippines, Taiwan, Qatar and Thailand.