A couple facing a hotel quarantine bill of nearly £4,000 on their return to the UK from South Africa this week have called on the government to cover the cost, saying they had “no window” to get back before the country went on the red list.
Emily Mennie, who is South African, and fiancé Owen Hancock, who is British, flew out to South Africa on 19 November - just under a week before the country was suddenly added to the UK’s red list.
They had travelled to see her friends and family after waiting nearly two and a half years to do so, due to the global pandemic.
“We were actually supposed to get married out here, but we postponed it because of the pandemic,” Emily told The Independent, speaking from her family’s home in the Midlands, near Durban.
The couple awoke to the news that the country had been added to the UK’s high-risk list again on Friday morning.
“We had a message at 1am from a friend, simply saying ‘S**t.’” says Emily. “It was a panic at first. We didn’t know what we were going to do.”
They had been due to fly back this Saturday, 4 December, with British Airways, so quickly consulted the airline’s website for advice.
What they found was a message saying that all passengers affected would be contacted, and advising those stranded not to contact BA. As their flight wasn’t within the weekend of the rule change, they weren’t contacted.
Not long after, ministers banned flights from South Africa from Friday afternoon until Sunday, with a joint statement from the Departments for Health and Transport saying it would be in place “until hotel quarantine is up and running from 4am Sunday 28 November”.
This all but wiped out options for Britons hoping to get home from South Africa before quarantine rules kicked in.
“We only found out on Friday morning that South Africa was going on the red list, and we would have had to fly back Saturday morning to beat the deadline of 4am on Sunday,” says Owen.
In fact, the last flights from South Africa to the UK where passengers were able to swerve quarantine were those that landed early on Friday morning, since the flight ban kicked in from midday that day until the country moved to the red list at 4am on Sunday.
Virgin Atlantic flight VS450 from Johannesburg landed just after 6.30am, followed within the next hour by British Airways flights BA56 from Johannesburg and BA44 from Cape Town.
Emily and Owen’s only option would have been to find space on a connecting flight to a third country - such as Ethiopian Airlines’ Friday flight to London via Addis Ababa, or Kenya Airways’ via Nairobi - but the time between researching such options and getting on those flights was vanishingly small for a couple staying hours away from the country’s main airports.
On top of which, the pair say they were keen to help with UK efforts to contain the spread of Covid, and didn’t want to travel between more places or on more aircraft than necessary in order to get home.
“It defeats the point of what the UK is trying to do,” Emily says of travellers having to go via extra locations and take multiple flights to beat red-list deadlines. “We’re not against quarantining, but we weren’t given a window beyond the two to get back without having to pay for it.”
“We understand that things change rapidly and it’s tough to stay on top of things,” says Owen. “We’re happy to quarantine, but we can’t come home unless we pay nearly £4,000 for hotel quarantine - we feel the government should have to pay for that.”
Now, the pair has launched a petition asking the UK government to cut the cost of hotel quarantine, which has already gathered nearly 35,000 signatures.
Mandatory hotel quarantine for arrivals from red list countries carries a price tag of £3,715 per couple, which includes daily meals and two PCR tests.
Emily and Owen, who have just bought a house in London, say this will put serious financial strain on them, and have found that their travel insurance will not cover any of the quarantine costs.
They feel international couples and expats with families abroad are being unduly punished by the UK’s short-notice travel rule changes.
“It would be different if we’d come out to South Africa when it was on the red list, but it changed overnight,” says Owen.
To add insult to financial injury, the couple say they cannot even book a quarantine hotel room after their intended arrival date.
“We got told they are all full - ‘Please change your travel dates if possible’.” says Emily. “There are no rooms available. Not only do we get slapped with a huge cost, we can’t get home now because the government hasn’t got its act together. It’s a shambles.”
The worst thing, Emily says, is how seriously the couple have taken Covid rules and guidelines around travel - holding off seeing her family for as long as possible, and then testing frequently during their trip to South Africa, only to be caught out by the “surprise” ban.
“It’s made the trip really bittersweet, when we’ve been really diligent with the rules and been tested multiple times while out here. It means the last bit of time spent with my family has been spent rushing around trying to figure out how to get home,” she says.
“With South Africa being on the red list, we don’t know when we’ll be able to come out and see them again,” Owen adds. “These are the last few precious days and they’ve been soured.”
A spokesperson for British Airways said: “Of course we’re doing everything we can to support anyone who has been affected.
“Customers who wish to change their flights can contact us on a priority local phone line to speak with our dedicated team on +27 10 344 0130.”
The Independent has contacted the Departments for Health and Transport for comment.
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