Omicron variant: UK’s new Covid travel rules explained

The emergence of the new Covid-19 Omicron variant has seen the UK government take action to try to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

In a briefing on Saturday Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a series of “temporary and precautionary” measures, including the mandatory wearing of face coverings in shops and on public transport in England, starting from tomorrow.

Some travel restrictions have also been reintroduced and ten southern African nations are now on England’s “red list”. Here we break down what the new travel rules are and how the tourism industry has reacted to the changes…

What is the Omicron variant?

The Omicron variant has been designated as one of “concern” by the World Health Organization (WHO), with one UK health official calling it the “worst one we’ve seen so far”, ITV reported. 

It has been identified as having 30 different mutations already, Sky News said. That is “twice as many as the Delta variant, which has been the most prominent in the UK over the past few months”.

Which countries are on the red list?

The new variant was first reported from South Africa on Wednesday, with early evidence suggesting it has a higher reinfection risk, said BBC News

England’s red list had been cleared of all countries in October, but concerns over the new variant means that ten countries and territories have now been added: Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Passengers arriving into England from a red list destination will not be able to enter unless they are UK or Irish nationals, or UK residents. They must quarantine in a pre-booked government-approved hotel for ten days/11 nights (£2,285 for one adult, £1,430 for an additional adult, and £325 for children aged five to 11). The cost includes all meals and two PCR tests.

Public health across the UK is a devolved matter, Forbes said. But the UK government works closely with the administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on any changes to international travel and aims to ensure a whole UK approach.

Scotland and Wales call for tighter restrictions

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and the First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford have written a joint letter to the prime minister calling for a tougher four-nations approach to travel restrictions, STV reported. They want to see a tightening of restrictions and an eight-day isolation period for people arriving to the UK from overseas. 

However, there are no plans from the UK government to introduce stricter travel rules, the BBC reported. “Introducing further isolation and testing requirements would have a detrimental effect on the travel industry and those planning to go travelling,” the prime minister’s spokesman said. 

Heathrow Terminal 5 passenger
Travel from non-red list countries 

From all other countries, except the Republic of Ireland, the rules depend on the traveller’s vaccination status, The Independent reported. Fully vaccinated travellers arriving after 4am on Tuesday 30 November are now required to book a PCR test to be taken on arrival or before the end of day two of their stay. Travellers must also self-isolate on arrival until a negative result is received.

Lateral flow tests “will no longer be accepted” the UK government said. NHS tests are not allowed to be used and tests must be purchased from a private test provider.

For non-fully vaccinated travellers they must still take a pre-departure test, PCR tests on days two and eight after arrival and self-isolate for ten days.

Should PCR tests be taken on day two?

This is a “widely held but mistaken view”, said Simon Calder, travel correspondent of The Independent. “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 PCR test at the airport, Calder added. 

How long will the new rules be in place?

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the targeted measures have been introduced to provide “confidence and protection”. In a tweet he said the new rules will be reviewed “in three weeks to ensure they are working effectively”.

What are other countries doing?

Many countries have moved to tighten their borders because of the new variant, Sky News said. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has announced that entry for all foreign visitors has been suspended, starting from Tuesday. From 22:59 GMT on Monday all incoming passenger flights to Morocco will be suspended for two weeks while Israel will ban entry of all foreigners into the country for 14 days. 

View from South Africa

South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa said he was “deeply disappointed” by the travel bans against his country and other southern African nations. The UK, EU and US are among those who have imposed travel bans and he has called the measures unjustified and urged the bans to be lifted, the BBC reported. 

“The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to, and recover from, the pandemic,” Ramaphosa said. He wants countries to “urgently reverse their decisions… before any further damage is done to our economies”.

How has the UK travel industry reacted?

The travel industry, which has already suffered massive losses in the past 18 months, is “appalled”, said The Independent. The changes will “damage consumer confidence and increase the overall cost of holidays”. 

A spokesperson for Abta, the travel association, said it was a “huge blow” for businesses in the sector. It has called for a “careful review” and for restrictions to be “lifted promptly if it becomes clear there is not a risk to the UK vaccination programme”.

Paul Goldstein, a veteran tour guide and photographer, told The Independent it’s “a disgrace, penalising a country for their transparency and expertise by throwing them into the poor house”. He added: “Travel apartheid continues to destroy economies as well as chucking the UK travel industry to the wolves.”


This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.