All 11 countries on the UK’s travel red list will be removed as the system has become “less effective in slowing the incursion” of the Omicron variant, the health secretary has announced.
Sajid Javid told the House of Commons that the nations will be removed from 4am on Wednesday, so arrivals will no longer have to isolate in a government-approved quarantine hotel for two weeks at the cost of £2,285.
The 11 countries currently on the red list are: Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
Temporary testing measures for everyone arriving in the UK from overseas will remain for now.
It was later confirmed that those currently in hotel quarantine will be allowed to leave early, as long as they don’t test positive for COVID.
Cabinet minister Stephen Barclay, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, told the Commons: “The government’s decision is that we should permit early release of those people who went to managed quarantine before these changes to the red list.
“And require them to follow the relevant rules as if they have arrived from a non-red list country.
“Anyone who has tested positive will need to continue to stay in managed quarantine.
“This will require changes to regulations and we will look to implement this as quickly as possible and we’ll set out further specific guidance for affected individuals imminently.”
Soon after the announcement that all countries will be removed from the travel red list, British Airways’ owner International Airlines Group’s shares went up 1.7% while TUI’s rose by 2.6%.
Tim Alderslade, CEO of Airlines UK, representing UK-registered carriers such as BA, said removing those countries from the red list “makes complete sense” but he said it “doesn’t go nearly far enough”.
“If the red list isn’t necessary given that Omicron is established here at home, then neither are the costly emergency testing and isolation measures imposed on even fully vaccinated travellers,” he added.
He called on Mr Javid to scrap testing and said this is “make or break for UK aviation” as he warned if the restrictions are not reduced over the new year, the government “will need to step in with further economic support” for the aviation industry.
ABTA, which represents the travel industry, called the red list removals “a sensible step” but also urged the government to remove the temporary testing requirements and to come up with a plan for the sector for future variants, including transition arrangements for the red list so people overseas when that country is placed on the list can quarantine at home in the UK.
Since 7 December, all travellers arriving in the UK have had to take a pre-departure COVID-19 test a maximum of 48 hours before they depart.
All passengers, whether fully vaccinated or not, also need to take a day two PCR test after arriving in the UK, and must self-isolate until they test negative.
The Omicron variant first emerged in South Africa in early November and quickly spread to neighbouring countries, then to nations around the world.
The red list was designed to halt variants entering the UK, but modelling from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) shows Omicron is currently infecting 200,000 people a day in the UK.
Mr Javid said on Monday the variant now represents more than 20% of cases in England.
He also added that Omicron, thought to be much more transmissible than previous variants, represents more than 44% of infections in London, and it is expected to become the dominant variant in the capital by Thursday.