Omicron: How the return of PCR tests and self-isolation for international travel will work

PCR tests are back for travellers arriving in the UK. Weeks after rules were eased to allow cheaper and faster lateral flow (antigen) tests, the government has tightened the rules once again 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 contains 10 southern African nations.

These are the key questions and answers.

What are the new rules for travellers to the UK?

Anyone arriving from red list nations – currently South Africa, Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe – must must prebook 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.

For fully vaccinated travellers (and under-18s travelling with them) a passenger locator form is still required. It can be completed only with proof of having booked a suitable test. That must now be a PCR test, which will be more expensive and slower to generate a result. The reasoning is that positive tests can be sequenced to identify whether the Omicron variant is involved.

The other, highly significant, change is the need to self-isolate on arrival until a negative result is received.

The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, tweeted: “All fully vaccinated arrivals to the UK are required to self-isolate when they arrive, take a PCR test on or before day 2, and continue to self-isolate until they receive a negative result.

“For those who test positive, they must isolate for 10 days.”

So when exactly can I take the test?

The day of arrival counts as day zero. You can take the test 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 less than three hours.

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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 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.”

Can I leave to go shopping or walk the dog?

No. The government says: “You must not go shopping.

“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 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”.

What about the test?

You can leave the location for a test, if you have booked it at an outside location. Where your tests are delivered and self-administered, if 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.

When do the new rules take effect?

It is unclear. The Independent has asked the Department for Transport and Department of Health for urgent clarification.

Bringing back PCR tests, and making quarantine mandatory until the result is known, is understandable. But it beggars belief that the new rules – and in particular the starting time – are still not publicly available two hours after the prime minister’s statement. Across Europe and the world, thousands of travellers are preparing to return to the UK and they currently have no idea which set of rules to follow.”

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Paul Charles, chief executive of the travel consultancy The PC Agency, said: “It’s a sign of how little the UK government understands global travel that they announce all arrivals have to take PCR tests and self-isolate – but don’t say from when. “Travellers are getting on planes now. Every second of every minute.”

I already have a lateral flow test booked. What are my options?

Many people have ordered test-at-home kits for postal use. This was a rational decision on the basis that there was no time pressure. Indeed, the current requirement for testing after arrival in the UK has become something of a joke, with many stories of postal tests or results not arriving at all or taking weeks to deliver a result.

But with the requirement to self-isolate until a negative result is delivered, they will prefer a much quicker test.

If the test kit has already arrived, you are most unlikely to get a refund.

If you have yet to receive the kit – or are planning to go to a test centre – a decent test provider will allow you to upgrade.

Regrettably some of the providers have terms and conditions that do not allow changes after booking.

The Independent has long recommended that tests for arrival are booked as late as possible – ideally on the day of departure for the UK. There is no benefit to booking in advance.

How long will the new rules last?

The transport secretary said: “We will review these measures in three weeks to ensure they are working effectively.”

Boris Johnson called them “temporary and precautionary” and said: “I’m absolutely confident that Christmas this year will be considerably better than last year.”

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But the next review is on the last Saturday before Christmas – by which time many people will have decided to stay at home.

Paul Charles said: “We are in a three-week state of limbo in the run-up to one of the busiest times of year.”

What does the travel industry think about the changes?

It is appalled. The changes will damage consumer confidence and increase the overall cost of holidays. A spokesperson for Abta, the travel association, called it “a huge blow for travel businesses, many of whom were only just starting to get back on their feet after 20 months of severe restrictions”.

The spokesperson said: “It’s vital that this decision is kept under careful review and restrictions are lifted promptly if it becomes clear there is not a risk to the UK vaccination programme.”

Clive Wratten, chief executive of the Business Travel Association, said the measure was an overreaction: “Governments from around the world are acting without taking lessons from the last two years.

“It’s urgent that international protocols are introduced without delay to save lives, save economies and save our futures.”

The veteran tour guide and photographer, Paul Goldstein, was scathing about the expansion of the UK red list. He said: “It is a disgrace, penalising a country for their transparency and expertise by throwing them into the poor house.

“The list is now 10 countries, all of them utterly mystified and distraught by this persecution. European cases are rising, southern Africans not so, but they are the ones butchered.

“Travel apartheid continues to destroy economies as well as chucking the UK travel industry to the wolves.”

Any other changes?

People are now required to wear a face covering on public transport in the UK.

Mr Shapps said: “These are targeted measures to provide confidence and protection.”


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