‘Self-isolate for two weeks’: What a new government quarantine policy for arrivals to the UK could mean

At present there are no health checks on passengers arriving at British ports and airports

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Monday 27 April 2020 07:40 BST
Coronavirus in numbers

The government is moving closer to a policy of requiring travellers to self-isolate for two weeks after arrival in the UK.

At present there are no health checks on arriving passengers. This is how things could change.

What happens currently when you land at Heathrow – or other entry points?

Only a couple of things have changed in the arrival process since I flew in from Cairo to Heathrow airport just before lockdown began.

First, there are signs warning people to keep two metres apart – which, given the usual airport scrum, takes some getting used to. Then there is the online instruction to “go straight home from the airport, avoiding public transport where possible”. Whereupon the new arrival joins the rest of us in lockdown, at least in theory.

But the basic process is just as it was before anyone had heard of Covid-19: passengers step off the aircraft, go through passport control, collect their baggage and move on with no more than some friendly advice.

Heathrow says there are “enhanced monitoring procedures for flights, the presence of doctors and additional colleagues, and the provision of information leaflets”.

Everyone is handed a piece of paper headed: “Coronavirus: isolate yourself, stay at home”. It explains that if you have a high temperature or a new and continuous cough, stay at home and call 111 or consult nhs.uk

How does that compare with other countries?

Between many places on the globe, simply getting on an international flight is on the spectrum from “difficult to impossible”. Lots of countries, ranging from Cuba to Cameroon to India, have closed their international airports to all but cargo and humanitarian flights.

Many nations ban all but their own citizens and residents from incoming flights, and there are region-specific prohibitions such as the US ban on anyone who has been in the UK, the Schengen Area, China or Iran in the previous two weeks.

Japan even has a niche prohibition on anyone who has been aboard the cruise ship Westerdam.

If you do get on a flight, your problems may only just be beginning when you touch down. In Australia you will be frogmarched off to an airport hotel that approximates to an upmarket detention centre for 14 days. The aim is to allow time for any symptoms to develop .

Arrivals from anywhere in the world entering Singapore must spend two weeks in “a hotel room or similar accommodation provided by the Singapore government”. Leaving the room makes the traveller liable for a jail term of up to six months.

And for the past five weeks, all foreign travellers from Europe arriving at South Korean airports have been subject to testing for Covid-19. They are taken to a special facility and held there for up to 24 hours.

How many people arrive in Britain each day?

The health secretary, Matt Hancock, estimated 15,000 daily, around 10 days ago. Based on known arrivals at UK airports, sea ports and international rail terminals, The Independent calculates the true figure to be substantially lower – well below 10,000.

The Department of Health has not shared its calculations.

What is the UK government proposing?

At the moment the proposals are highly tentative, in part to test for the public/political reaction to them. But the basic plan is that air, sea and rail passengers who arrive in the UK will be told they must self-isolate for 14 days.

They will be asked for the address where they intend to spend the next two weeks. The authorities would conduct a range of random spot checks to try to ensure that travellers remain at the location they registered.

When would it be introduced – and how long would it last?

The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said such a policy could be introduced when figures for new infections of Covid-19 are falling in a sustained manner. The idea, he said, would be to help prevent a second spike in infections and deaths.

There is no further clarity on timing, though sources have told The Independent it could happen as early as mid-May.

The length of deployment would depend on many factors, including the incidence of coronavirus among those who are obliged to self-isolate. But it would probably last for months rather than weeks.

What are the implications for international travellers?

If everyone – whether British citizens returning from long stays abroad, foreigners arriving for work, family or leisure reasons, or UK holidaymakers returning home – was required to quarantine for a fortnight on arrival, the impact on the travel industry would be severe, as it would strongly disincentivise journeys abroad.

Those with work assignments, college placements or close friends and family abroad might judge the two-week incarceration on their return a worthwhile price to pay. But most holidaymakers and business travellers would not.

Airlines and holiday companies had been hoping for demand to begin to appear for summer flights. Some now fear that new bookings will remain close to zero.

I have a forward booking for July. I cannot risk being in quarantine. Can I get my money back?

At this stage, certainly not. The government has made no definite plans; it has merely shared its thinking with a couple of generally sympathetic newspapers.

Only when a clear policy is announced will airlines and holiday companies respond with plans for refunds or postponements. But at present there is no reason to expect leniency from travel firms: they are all suffering very significantly from the near-total shutdown of travel.

Is there any alternative?

The deadly virus was undoubtedly initially spread to continental Europe and the UK by air travel. So intuitively the idea of strict checks on people coming into the country sounds blindingly obvious.

Yet the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control disagrees, saying: “Checking people at the airport by reading their skin temperature isn’t very effective in preventing the spread of the virus.

“It’s generally considered more useful to provide those arriving at airports with clear information explaining what to do if they develop symptoms after arrival.”

The World Health Organisation recommends: “Travellers returning from affected areas should self-monitor for symptoms for 14 days and follow national protocols of receiving countries.”

The policy that the government is floating would be aimed at a cohort of people arriving from parts of the world with a far lower incidence of Covid-19 than the the UK population at large.

It would divert medical resources into a relatively low-risk arena; statistically, there would be a higher chance of identifying people who are unknowingly carrying coronavirus in Hounslow High Street in west London, rather than nearby Heathrow.

So, yes, the government could do nothing, in line with official international medical advice.

Airlines and airports in the UK, though, realise that doing nothing is not likely to be an option politically. So they are pressing for agreement on the “new normal” for international travel.

Those measures could include temperature checks at the airport of departure and/or arrival, some kind of testing regime with travellers required to show certificates that they are coronavirus-free (which some countries already require) and social distancing on board aircraft.

Would travellers from the Channel Islands, Isle of Man and Republic of Ireland be obliged to quarantine?

These places are, along with the UK, members of the Common Travel Area – a passport-free zone. One scenario is that the 14-day rule would apply to the entire Common Travel Area, and that travel within it would not require quarantine.

If such measures are to be introduced, will British travellers who are abroad be given any advance warning?

Yes, though notice of the quarantine process may be just a few days. Experience elsewhere in the world indicates that the UK could expect a sudden inrush of travellers seeking to dodge the measures just before they take effect.

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