Explained: How the UK’s current quarantine policy works and who calls the shots


YesterdayThe Telegraph launched its Test4Travel campaign for accessible airport testing at all airports and ports in time for Christmas. The aim is to get business and leisure travel moving again safely by removing the 14-day quarantine. But it doesn’t come without its challenges. If testing was to be implemented on a national, or even bi-lateral scale, how would it work?

As with all things Covid-19 related, the response has been a cross-government effort

On March 17, The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (now the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) advised against all non-essential international travel due to the pandemic and border restrictions put in place by other countries. This was lifted on June 8 but all travellers to the UK were required to self-isolate for 14 days and fill out a passenger locator form. Border Force carried out, and continue to carry out, spot checks at the border and can refuse entry to non-resident travellers who don’t comply, plus impose a £100 fixed penalty notice on nationals. The data collected from the passenger locator forms is then given to Public Health England to spot check recent passengers, with fines of up to £1,000 if the rules are being flouted. 

The Department for Transport took over from the FCDO and the government confirmed that people returning from certain countries after July 6 will not be required to quarantine for 14 days. A traffic light system was established with a list of countries to be confirmed at a later date. Holiday bookings surged after plans to ease quarantine restrictions on travel abroad were announced. 

Two lists for travel corridors (both allowing people to travel to certain destinations, but one stipulating quarantine on return and one without) were announced by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps on July 3. The list is regularly reviewed with the guideline that an infection rate of more than 20 people per 100,000 over a one week period will normally result in a travel corridor to that country being suspended. 

Where necessary and where needed, the Department for Transport bring in Public Health England, the Department of Health and Social Care more broadly and the Border Force contingency of the Home Office for help with aviation guidance, criterias for travel exemption lists, and for wider help, the aviation industry. 

The Department of Health and Social Care is responsible for testing at airports and they have most up-to-date information, including what the government is doing and the background information around any new testing policies that come into place. But ultimately, the Department for Transport oversees all policies relating to airports and ports.

Heathrow Airport

Heathrow Airport has a pop up testing centre in Terminal Two

PA/LHR Airports Limited

Where does the UK stand?

UK ministers have discussed the idea of double and single testing, and last month a group of 80 MPs plus some of Britiain’s biggest airlines wrote to Boris Johnson urging him to consider airport testing as an alternative to quarantine. They issued a 10-point plan so that passengers returning from “high-risk” countries who tested negative were freed from quarantine early, aiding economic recovery for travel and domestic industries. Testing has already been a popular alternative to quarantine in Iceland, Germany, France, UAE, Hong Kong and India. It’s a popular prospect among British holidaymakers, as our own research shows below.

In the UK, Heathrow International Airport and Southend have taken matters into their own hands. The former has placed a purpose-built testing centre in Terminal Two, with a second testing centre planned for Terminal Five this month. A polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test uses a nose and throat or saliva swab which gives results in between five and 24 hours. It’s repeated five or six days after the test to eliminate any risk of missing Covid-19 in pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic passengers, covering the time it takes for the virus to incubate. The idea is that passengers would quarantine until they received a double negative result. But, as it stands, whether travellers test positive or negative for the virus they must observe the quarantine.

The Department of Health and Social Care states that any potential change to the testing for arrivals would need to minimise the chance that positive cases are missed, and maximise compliance with self-isolation rules. Modelling by the Government suggests that the success rate in identifying cases of Covid-19 through testing international arrivals on day zero is seven per cent, day five is 88 per cent and day eight is 94 per cent against a 99 per cent success rate for 14 days’ self-isolation. A government spokesperson told Telegraph Travel: “International arrivals from non-exempt countries must quarantine for the full 14 days, whether they get tested or not, as the incubation period for the virus means passengers who do not follow this advice may pose a risk to others.

“Work is ongoing with clinicians, the devolved administrations and the travel industry to consider if and how testing could be used to reduce the self-isolation period.”

Currently the Department of Health and Social Care is targeting its testing capacity in the areas that need it most, including where there is an outbreak, as well as prioritising at-risk groups. However, they are working closely with other government departments and agencies to consider if and how testing could be used to reduce the self-isolation period.

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