Testing rules for travellers to the UK will revert largely to where they were months ago, the health secretary has said.
Airlines, holiday firms and cruise and ferry lines are aghast at the latest government U-turn, just a week after the red list was revived and testing rules toughened.
Sajid Javid has also extended the red list, requiring travellers returning from Nigeria who arrive after 4am on Monday 6 December to go into hotel quarantine at a cost of thousands of pounds.
These are the key questions and answers.
What has changed?
Just a week after toughening the rules on testing, the government has added extra Covid-19 checks for everyone travelling to the UK from any foreign country except Ireland.
In addition, arrivals from Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria, will need to enter “managed isolation”, as hotel quarantine is known, for 11 nights. They join travellers from 10 southern African countries. The move is in response to concerns about the spread of the omicron variant of coronavirus. It follows 21 cases of omicron reported in England which are linked to travel from Africa’s most populous nation.
Mr Javid tweeted: “In light of the most recent data we are taking further action to slow the incursion of the omicron variant.
“From 4am Monday, only UK and Irish citizens and residents travelling from Nigeria will be allowed entry and must isolate in a managed quarantine facility.
“And, from 4am Tuesday, anyone travelling to the UK from countries not on the red list will be required to take a pre-departure test, regardless of their vaccination status.”
The rule applies to all travellers aged 12 or over.
The health secretary added: “Vaccines remain our first line of defence – the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones.
“Please get vaccinated or #GetBoosted as soon as you can.”
What tests will I now need?
From 4am on Tuesday arrivals must take a pre-departure test, which can be lateral flow/rapid antigen, in addition to the post-arrival PCR. NHS tests cannot be used.
It must be taken on either of the two days before departure to the UK, or on the day of travel.
The government said: “New analysis conducted by the UK Health and Security Agency (UKHSA) indicates that the window between infection and infectiousness may be shorter for the omicron variant, which increases the efficacy of pre-departure testing as it is more likely to identify positive cases before travel.
“Given the reduced incubation period of the omicron variant, passengers are advised to take the pre-departure test as close as possible to their scheduled departure to the UK and no earlier than 48 hours before travelling.”
The move will add cost and complexity to Christmas and New Year plans for millions of travellers – and increase uncertainty for anyone thinking of going away.
How much is this going to cost? Pre-departure tests will depend on prevailing prices in the location – typically €25-€30 (£21-£25) in Europe.
A negative certificate will need to be presented to the airline, shipping firm or train operator before departure. In addition, each traveller aged five or over (from aged 11 in Scotland) must book a post-arrival PCR test, typically costing £40-£70.
Haven’t we been here before?
Yes, from May to September 2021, fully vaccinated travellers to the UK had to take both pre-departure and post-arrival tests. The pre-departure test was scrapped three months ago, and travellers could opt for a cheaper and faster lateral flow test on arrival.
In addition, the red list was emptied two months ago. At the time the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said: “We are accelerating towards a future where travel continues to reopen safely and remains open for good.
“Today’s rule changes are good news for families, businesses and the travel sector.”
The rules have reverted to where they were in summer – with the added twist of travellers being obliged to self-isolate until a negative PCR result is received.
Mr Shapps tweeted on Saturday evening: “As the scientists work to understand new omicron variant we need to apply additional caution until picture is clearer.
“We appreciate this will be difficult for the travel sector as we prioritise public health and protect the progress of our world-leading vaccination and booster programme.”
What if someone tests positive for omicron on my flight?
You must self-isolate for 10 days.
What is this doing to traveller confidence?
The will to travel is being rapidly eroded. With two very significant changes in the space of a week, many travellers will conclude that the risk of being caught by hotel quarantine or unexpectedly high testing costs render journeys too uncertain.
How has the travel industry responded?
With renewed fury at the government’s latest U-turn on testing.
The chairman and chief executive of British Airways, Sean Doyle, said: “The blanket re-introduction of testing to enter the UK, on top of the current regime of isolation and PCR testing on arrival is completely out of step with the rest of the world, with every other country taking a measured approach based on the science.
“Our customers will now be faced with uncertainty and chaos and yet again this a devastating blow for everyone who works in the travel industry.”
Martin Chalk, general secretary of the pilots’ union, Balpa, said: “The new costs and stress of travel seem designed to destroy confidence in air travel and the idea of families being confident in booking to re-unite over the holidays, many for the first time since Covid, is now a cruel joke. “
Tim Alderslade, CEO of the industry body Airlines UK, said: “It is premature to hit millions of passengers and industry before we see the full data. We don’t have the clinical evidence.
“We know from experience that blanket restrictions do not stop the importation of variants. It’s already here.
“They’ve now changed their travel advice twice within a week and it’s just impossible for anyone to plan.
“These measures must be removed as quickly as possible in line with the speed of the booster programme.”
He added, though, that “The red list extension made complete sense – that’s what it’s there for.”
The veteran tour guide and photographer, Paul Goldstein, said: “This woeful government seem determined to hammer a few nails in the industry’s coffin and starve everyone in Africa.
“The variant is well and truly out of the bag anyway and I struggle to see how this draconian edict could ever be described as ‘learning to live with Covid’.”
Any way out of Nigeria before the deadline?
British Airways has seats on Sunday’s overnight Lagos-London Heathrow service for £1,575. The flight is due in at 4.50am, and there is a chance BA may try to bring it in so that the wheels touch the ground before 4am on Monday.
From the capital, Abuja, there are no direct flights before the deadline. Four seats left on Monday’s daytime flight to Heathrow are available at £730 one way, but the service will arrive too late.
The Independent has been unable to find any connecting flights from Lagos or Abuja on Sunday that arrive before the 4am Monday deadline.
Anyone who arrives from Nigeria before the 4am Monday deadline will be “strongly encouraged to isolate at home, and their household should also self-isolate for 10 days starting with their arrival”.
Are there any ways to get around the red list?
Some travellers will, legally and responsibly, travel from Nigeria to a third country and remain there for 10 full days before continuing to the UK. Egypt is a possibility.
Anyone seeking to “launder” their red list status in this manner must check that the third country will allow them in, and is taking the risk that the chosen location will itself go onto the red list.
Are there enough hotel quarantine rooms?
The government says it has “contracted several new hotels to enter service this week, in response to the likely numbers of UK residents who will want to travel from Nigeria before Christmas”.
But travellers will not be allowed to travel to the UK from a red list country without a “Managed Quarantine Service” booking. So they may need to remain in Nigeria until a hotel quarantine room becomes available.
When will the rules change again?
On 27 November, the prime minister said a review will be conducted and announced on Saturday 18 December. It will now happen on Monday 20 December.