Red list: what the latest changes mean for travellers

Even changing planes at Doha airport will trigger 11 nights of hotel quarantine

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Tuesday 16 March 2021 12:33 GMT

Qatar, along with Ethiopia, Oman and Somalia, has been added to the UK’s “red list” of high-risk countries.

This is what it means for travellers.

What has happened?

The UK government’s “red list” of high-risk countries imposes travel restrictions that are intended “to reduce the risk of importing variants of concern”.

On 15 January the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, announced the initial list of 16 nations, including: Portugal, South America, Panama and Cape Verde, the islands off the west coast of Africa.

Since then the red list has grown ever longer.

Over the following two months a further 21 countries were added, mainly in southern Africa, but also including the UAE and, most recently, Qatar, Ethiopia, Oman and Somalia.

At the same time, two nations, Portugal and Mauritius, were removed from the list.

Read more:

What does it mean for travellers?

Anyone who arrives in England after 4am on Friday 19 March, and who has been in Qatar, Ethiopia, Oman or Somalia within the past 10 days, must book a quarantine  hotel package at a cost of £1,750 for one person or £2,400 for two.

The package also includes two Covid tests on days two and eight of the stay. A negative result from either test does not shorten the length of quarantine.

I’m just changing planes – does it apply to me?

Yes. The decision affects three key airports with many transit passengers to the UK: Doha, the hub for Qatar Airways; Addis Ababa, home of Ethiopian Airlines; and Muscat, where Oman Air is based.

Even though you may only be in the airport for an hour or two, and have very little contact with local people, merely setting foot in the terminal triggers hotel quarantine.

Are other countries so strict about transit stops?

Not that I have been able to discover. Even Hong Kong, which has some of the most draconian travel restrictions in the world, discounts transit stops in high-risk countries of less than two hours.

The UK’s Global Travel Taskforce recognised this as a problem. It pledged to “investigate measures to facilitate safe transit” and “explore ways that transit could be safely facilitated, in line with public health requirements, without passengers needing to self-isolate on return to the UK”. But nothing has happened. 

The UK takes an extreme interpretation of being in a country; when France was placed on the no-go list last summer, motorists using Eurotunnel could still transit via Calais, because they remained in their cars; but ferry passengers were not exempt because of the minutes spent in the ship mingling with other people while it was still in a French port.

As a transit passenger, what are my options to avoid hotel quarantine?

You could switch your flight earlier, but demand is so strong that you may struggle to find space – or have to pay a hefty fare difference. For example, Qatar Airways is selling one-way business flights from Bangkok to London Heathrow via Doha on Thursday 18 March (arriving the same day at lunchtime) for the equivalent of £4,450; there is no space showing in economy.

Alternatively, you can switch to another airline. The obvious candidate is Turkish Airlines, which is operating many flights via its Istanbul hub. On Friday it has a one-way flight from Bangkok to Heathrow for £339.

I’ve heard red list status described as both a “travel ban” and a “flight ban”. Is it both?

No, it is neither. People without the right to live in the UK are not allowed to travel to England, but almost anyone travelling at the moment is likely to have roots here.

Neither is it a flight ban. For example, Qatar Airways is still selling four daily departures from Heathrow to Doha beyond Friday’s deadline. Planes can still fly from red list countries to the UK, carrying crew and freight, and return with a full load of passengers. But they cannot sell seats coming in. So even though the planes are flying direct, returning British residents must book flights through third countries. 

As The Independent has pointed out to the UK government, this rule significantly adds to the risk for returning travellers and the extra people they encounter along the way.

Besides the red list, is there an amber and a green list?

Effectively, yes, in terms of how foreign countries are classified by England for the purposes of quarantine and other travel restrictions on arrival.

The Independent defines the green list as a location from which it is not necessary to quarantine, and for which any Covid testing requirement is swift and inexpensive (eg a single airport test).

At present the green list has only one member: Ireland. Arrivals from the Republic to the UK have never needed to self-isolate nor take tests, though they must complete the passenger locator form in case public health officials need to contact them later.

Arrivals from nations on the amber list, which includes the vast majority of countries, must self-isolate at home and/or undergo an onerous and expensive testing requirement. At present both requirements apply to everyone arriving from amber locations: three Covid tests and 10 days of self-isolation are required, though the quarantine can be reduced with an additional negative test after five days.

The travel industry wants to see more countries moved from amber to green, and for the red list to be abolished altogether when circumstances allow.

How long will the red list remain in place?

Indefinitely. The hope in the travel industry was that it would gradually be whittled away.

While there is relief that by far the biggest tourism location, Portugal, has left the red list, the addition of four new countries raises the prospect of another summer of on/off travel bans.

The risk of having to spend 11 nights in hotel quarantine and pay £1,750 for the dubious privilege is undermining consumer confidence.

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