PCR tests, pre-departure checks and self-isolation are back for travellers arriving in the UK. Weeks after international travel rules were eased to allow cheaper and faster lateral flow (antigen) tests, the government has tightened restrictions twice in response to the spread of the omicron variant of coronavirus.
At the same time, the previously dormant red list has been expanded and now applies to arrivals from 11 African nations.
These are the key questions and answers.
What are the new rules for travellers to the UK?
Pre-departure tests must be taken by all travellers aged 12 and over to the UK. They can be lateral flow tests, and must be taken on the day of departure to the UK or one of the two previous days. You will not be allowed to board a plane, ship or train to the UK without providing a negative result.
Anyone arriving from a red list nation – currently Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe – must register for hotel quarantine for 11 nights at a cost of up to £2,285, which includes all meals and two PCR tests.
From all other countries (except the Republic of Ireland), the rules depend on the traveller’s vaccination status.
Fully vaccinated travellers must book a PCR test to be taken on arrival (or one of the two following days).
The same applies to children aged five to 18 who are travelling with them (though under 11s in Scotland need not take a PCR test).
You cannot use an NHS test for international travel; you must use a private test provider.
PCR tests are more expensive and slower to process, but allow for genomic sequencing of positive tests to identify whether the omicron variant is involved.
The traveller must also self-isolate on arrival until a negative result is received.
All travellers must complete a passenger locator form within the 48 hours before arrival. Airlines, ferry firms and international train operators will not allow passengers to board without one.
For the avoidance of doubt, arrivals from the Common Travel Area (Channel Islands, Ireland, Isle of Man and the four nations of the UK) require neither testing nor quarantine.
Why have things got so tough?
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said: “Following developments in the past week, the science shows that we must be cautious in guarding against this new variant and so, while we appreciate this will be difficult for the travel sector, it’s important we prioritise public health.
“As we learn more about the Omicron variant, we will review these temporary measures to ensure they continue to be proportionate and necessary.”
The next review is scheduled for 20 December, just five days before Christmas.
What if the PCR test is positive or inconclusive?
Anyone who tests positive must isolate for 10 full days after the date of their test. If you arrived on Wednesday 1 December and took the test on Thursday 2 December, you must isolate until midnight at the end of Sunday 12 December.
The government says: “If you took a PCR test and the result is unclear, you self-isolate for 10 full days. You can choose to take another private test. If the result is negative, you can stop self-isolating.”
What if the PCR result doesn’t come back when it should?
You have to quarantine until it does, up to a maximum of two weeks.
The government says: “If your PCR test results are delayed, you must self-isolate until your test result is known or until day 14 after arrival, whichever is sooner.”
I thought I had to take the test on day two?
That is a widely held but mistaken view. Despite the government’s unfortunate choice of name for the post-arrival test, you can take it any time from immediately after arrival in the UK to the end of the second full day after arrival.
There will be a strong incentive to have the test at the airport. While PCR tests take much longer to analyse than the lateral flow variety, some airport testing centres can process the results in under three hours, allowing travellers to leave self-isolation soon after arrival in the UK.
Does anything change for unvaccinated travellers?
No: they are still required to take a pre-departure test, take PCR tests on days two and eight after arrival and self-isolate for 10 days.
What does self-isolation involve?
It is a rigorous requirement that does not allow the traveller to leave their dwelling except in a few very closely defined circumstances.
From the arrival airport, sea port or international railway station, the government says: “You must travel directly to the place you’re staying.”
If this is a long journey that cannot be completed in a day, or you are arriving late in the evening, you are permitted to stay somewhere overnight.
“Only use public transport if you have no other option,” the government says.
“You must quarantine in one place for the full quarantine period, where you can have food and other necessities delivered.”
Anyone planning to leave the UK before the 10 days is up can do so, as long as they travel direct to the airport, port or international rail terminal. They are still required to pay for the PCR test.
Can I leave to go shopping or walk the dog?
No. The government says: “Unless you’re at risk of harm, you cannot leave the premises where you’re in quarantine. You must only exercise inside the place where you’re quarantining or in the garden.
“You must not go shopping. You cannot leave to walk your dog. You will need to ask friends or relatives to help you with this.”
Visitors, including friends and family, are not permitted unless they are providing care or assistance, veterinary services or “certain critical public services”.
You can leave the location for a test if you have booked it at an outside location. If your test is delivered and self-administered, and there is no one in your household or bubble who can post the test for processing, you can leave the premises to post your test.
I already have a lateral flow test booked. What are my options?
Some testing companies are responding decently: making immediate refunds to people with lateral flow tests booked that are now worthless.
Many people have ordered test-at-home kits for postal use. If you have yet to receive the kit – or are planning to go to a test centre – a good test provider will at least allow you to upgrade or provide a voucher which you can then use for a new test.
But if the test kit has already arrived, you are unlikely to get a refund.
Regrettably some providers have terms and conditions that do not allow any changes after booking.
What PCR tests are available and how much do they cost?
Basically, the faster you want to leave quarantine, the more you are likely to pay.
Tests at airports and other other transport locations are among the most expensive. Collinson is offering post-arrival tests for £69 at Heathrow, Gatwick, East Midlands, London City, Manchester and Stansted airports – as well as the O2 in east London. Many airlines can provide discount codes – for example BA20OFF – that give a 20 per cent discount.
But the service is much slower than for pre-departure tests, with results promised only within 48 hours.
Arriving travellers can save significantly by self-administering tests.
Randox has a £48 home kit (again, discountable with a code such as Easyjet2021) and says: “For samples returned via standard drop box, we aim to provide next day results up to 11.59pm.”
Do these rules apply to all four UK nations?
Yes, though in Scotland children aged under 11 need not take the PCR test (in the other three nations it is under five). The first ministers of Scotland and Wales, Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford, wanted tougher travel rules, with eight days of mandatory self-isolation for all arrivals to the UK and a PCR test at the end.
Ms Sturgeon said: “We believe this would be more effective in detecting variants.”
Had the plan been adopted, it would extend the minimum length of quarantine from a couple of hours to eight days. But it has been rejected by Downing Street.
What does the travel industry think about the changes?
It is appalled. The changes will damage consumer confidence, increase the overall cost of holidays and erode still further the UK’s appeal to overseas visitors.
A Virgin Atlantic spokesperson urged the government “to avoid turning back the clock on progress made”, saying: “The UK’s approach to the omicron variant strain needs to be measured and proportionate and any action must be based on science and data.
“Two years into the pandemic, with wide-scale vaccination programmes, ever-changing restrictions on travel are not a solution to combatting variants of concern.
“We have demonstrated how international travel can operate safely, taking full advantage of the benefits of the vaccine and booster rollout.”
“Reintroducing restrictions will only result in confusion for millions of travellers, damaging consumer confidence and economic recovery.
“It’s imperative that criteria for restrictions is clear and the speed at which they are implemented should be mirrored in their removal, once we have the evidence.”
A spokesperson for Abta, the travel association, said: ““The re-introduction of pre-departure tests will be a huge blow to travellers and an already devastated travel industry.
“It’s vitally important this decision is reversed as quickly as possible, in line with scientific and medical advice, as it is simply not possible for the travel industry to recover properly while this huge barrier to consumer confidence is in place.“
Clive Wratten, chief executive of the Business Travel Association, said: “The introduction of pre-departure testing with little warning is a hammer blow to the business travel industry.
“Businesses will fail, travellers will be stranded and livelihoods devastated by the lack of coherent plans from government.”