The government is to introduce a system of quarantine that will require those arriving from some countries to isolate in hotels.
If that sounds vague, it’s because it is. Little is known about the actual plan, despite the measures being confirmed by Boris Johnson last week and the government announcing on Thursday night that it would begin on February 15.
Ministers are said to be planning space for more than 1,000 UK residents a day returning from countries with new variants of coronavirus. A source told the BBC the government was estimating a cost of around £80 a night for quarantine accommodation. The source said: “If they are taking rooms for 1,425 passengers per night until March 31, that is a bill of £55m.”
Labour leader Keir Starmer on Thursday said the government had caused “chaos and confusion”, adding: “Surely, before you announce arrangements like this, you’d have done the planning beforehand.”
It all comes amid continued criticism of the government’s decision not to implement tougher border restrictions during the pandemic. It was not until June 2020 that people arriving in the UK from all destinations were required to self-isolate, several months after the outbreak.
In turn, there has also been concern about the 20,000 people a day who are not self-isolating – particularly as the country struggles with highly infectious new variants from Brazil and South Africa.
Recent research has shown that international travel had the biggest impact on death rates for countries which were worst hit during the first wave of the pandemic.
The UK death toll passed 100,000 last week, with a peak of 1,820 deaths on January 20. The nation has sustained one of the worst death rates in the world and has been battered by the economic fallout.
Australia has ranked among the world’s most successful countries in handling the virus, largely because of decisive lockdowns and borders sealed to all but a trickle of travellers. In all, Australia has had just over 30,000 coronavirus cases and 909 deaths.
All international arrivals must spend two weeks in its quarantine hotels and any transmission from the hotels has resulted in swift, strict lockdowns for millions of people.
Labour has urged the government to go further and bring in a hotel quarantine system for all international arrivals as a way of keeping out mutant strains – something Scotland plans to do.
As yet the plan is only to quarantine those who have come from 33 “red” list countries and details of its proposed policy are still not known.
What the hotels say
HuffPost UK has contacted several large hotels which have chains at England’s major airports but not a single one was able to say it had received clear instructions from the government.
Some, such as the Radisson – which has hotels at Manchester, Stansted, East Midlands and Heathrow Airports – said it was primed to implement a service quickly and safely but inferred it has not yet received any official instruction from the government.
The Travelodge chain said it had not been approached or asked to take part in any discussions. The Renaissance at Heathrow said it did not expect to have any information about the scheme until the end of the week.
Meher Nawab, chief executive of London Hotel Group, said the time given by the government before quarantine hotels opened on February 15 was not enough time to suitably prepare facilities.
He told BBC Breakfast on Friday: “There has been no open dialogue between the hospitality sector and the government.
“To set up all the processes you need virologists to come and visit the property, you need to set up hygiene protocols, that can’t all be done overnight.
“The ventilation system has to be looked at very closely. I am not sure what has been set out can be done in this time.”
Adrian Ellis, chair of the Manchester Hospitality Association and general manager of the city’s Lowry Hotel, said: “We don’t know which hotels are assigned and we don’t know how the rules will work.”
Foreign Office minister James Cleverly defended the delay, telling Sky News the government had been observing the packages put in place in countries like Australia and New Zealand.
He added: “Obviously not every hotel will be doing this so it’s unsurprising that some hotel chains haven’t been contacted about this.”
On BBC Breakfast he admitted no hotels had yet signed up to the scheme, stressing: “The announcement only came out at one minute past midnight this morning, so it’s unsurprising that no one has formally signed up to this.”
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think in any normal company if you went out and announced a programme nationally, and you hadn’t thought about how you were going to plan that, and you hadn’t spoken to the people involved, I’m not sure I’d have a job if I did that in my company.
“To this day we simply haven’t heard anything despite multiple offers.
“We’ve got all these contacts in other countries that have already rolled this out for some time. They could offer some really valuable support and we’re just simply kept in the dark.”
What the airports say
Heathrow Airport has warned that requiring all international arrivals to enter quarantine hotels would have “huge ramifications” for an aviation sector “already on its knees” and that it will make it harder to kickstart Britain’s economic recovery.
A spokesperson said: “The chancellor must finally deliver on his promise of a comprehensive financial support package for UK aviation, made some ten months ago. It is completely unacceptable that an industry worst hit has watched on as others, fortunate to experience a boom in profits and no restrictions, have been afforded unnecessary financial support as we remain ignored.
“As a start, this support must include the extension of the Jobs Retention Scheme and full 100% business rates relief for all airports. We now need action rather than empty promises before more people pay for this crisis with their jobs and livelihoods.”
A spokesperson for the Airport Operators Association said the body had met with the Home Office last week. He told HuffPost UK: “The reality is government doesn’t really know what it’s doing so it can’t really tell anybody what’s happening.”
“This is very complex. It’s not easy to do and in a way it’s very good that they’re taking the time to do it rather than doing a botched job.
“The plans are in a very embryonic state. I can understand that hotels are getting annoyed that they’re not getting enough information but I would argue that the fact is there is no information but also no implementation date is a relatively good thing, because we are not being pressed to do something before a certain date.”
Just some of the things the government will have to do to set up a functioning and stable quarantine system include:
- Set up a quarantine hotel booking system
- Ensure hotels involved are Covid-secure and have rolling vacancies
- Customer service for cancelled or late flights and special diets and other requests
- Segregation of passengers joining flights from red list countries on aircraft and/ or at airport
- Ensure red list connecting flights are signposted with passenger locator forms
- Location for quarantine passengers at airport while awaiting transportation to hotels
- Security at hotels - who to supply and what powers do they have?
- Documentation and possible daily charges for passenger vehicles present at airports
- Furloughed airport staff - will government pay to implement this policy?
Karen Dee, chief executive of the Airport Operators Association, and Tim Alderslade, who leads Airlines UK, said: “We have fully supported the government to do what is right in the face of this pandemic, but policy should be based on evidence and there must be a roadmap out of these restrictions as soon as it is safe.
“The impact of further measures would be catastrophic.
“They will impact vital freight and PPE (personal protective equipment) supplies and jeopardise tens of thousands of jobs and the many businesses that depend on aviation.
“The government cannot achieve its global Britain aspirations without airlines and airports.”