The government’s hotel quarantine policy comes into effect today. But how will the scheme work in practice, what does it cost and how do you apply?
From 15 February all passengers arriving in England from 33 so-called 'red list' countries will be forced to quarantine in special hotel accommodation for ten days in an effort to limit the spread of dangerous new Covid-19 variants.
Government guidelines on what the quarantine will involve were published on Thursday last week after the safe travel corridor policy was scrapped earlier this year, with a travel ban put in place to stop any non-UK residents travelling to the country from higher risk countries.
Until now, all new arrivals in the UK, including from high-risk countries were required to isolate for ten days, but were allowed to do this in their private homes.
Under the new rules, any British or Irish nationals or those with residency in the UK returning from high-risk nations be required to book a ten day "quarantine package" ahead of their arrival.
But with just days until the restrictions come into force, the system has been beset by tech issues and criticism over "risky" practices.
What Is a quarantine package?
Ministers have signed deals with several hotel chains to provide specially managed quarantine accommodation for those arriving in the UK, with travellers ordered to book the so-called "quarantine packages" before their arrival.
Each package includes the price of the rooms, meals during the stay and transport from the airport to the accommodation.
The package also includes two mandatory Covid-19 tests which must be taken on day 2 and day 8 of the quarantine period.
Those who test positive on day 2 of their quarantine will not receive any further tests, but will be required their stay for a further 2 days.
For those who test positive on day eight, a further ten days of quarantine will be required for their whole group, but ministers have not yet set out if or how this could impact on the cost of the quarantine packages.
And even in the event of a negative test, travellers will not be able to end their quarantine early.
Travellers have been told they must have already booked their stay before filling out their passenger locator form and before beginning their journey to the UK.
The deals already agreed with hotels will provide 4,600 rooms across England for the quarantine measures, but ministers have failed to reveal how many have already been booked or what will happen if the capacity is reached.
What is the cost?
Each package will cost £1,750 based on 1 adult staying in one room for eleven nights. For additional adult or child over the age of 12 there will be a further charge of £650 or £325 for children aged 5-12. There will be no additional cost for children under the age of 5.
It means for a family of 4 with two teenagers, the total cost of the quarantine package will be £3,700 and that is in addition to the cost of their flights.
For those facing "significant financial hardship" the government will allow a deferred repayment plan to be put in place, spreading the cost over 12 months.
But the delayed payment plan will only be available to those already entitled to income-related benefits, the guidance says, with penalties for those who apply for the hardship fund who are not eligible.
Ministers have already stated that the price of the packages will be reviewed in March and that costs could change.
How do you book a package?
While some hotels are offering their own so-called quarantine packages directly on their websites, passengers from 'red list' countries must book through the government's centralised system, which has experienced significant outage since its launch last week, with tech issues blocking some travellers from making their reservations.
Defending the policy last week, home secretary Priti Patel said the portal was a "fresh website" and insisted the scheme would be "up and running" by Monday.
Speaking to LBC radio, she added: "This is not a scheme that can come into force overnight.
"The logistics are quite something, actually."
Where does it apply?
Under the rules, those you eligible for the quarantine policy are being ordered to enter the country from a small list of – mainly London based – airports.
Currently, they are: Heathrow Airport, Gatwick Airport, London City Airport, Birmingham Airport, Farnborough Airfield.
While the government said other entry points may be added in the future, they have told people with bookings to other airports it is "your responsibility to change it to one of the ports of entry" listed above.
In a bid to crack down on travellers arriving from third-party countries, airlines have been ordered to refuse travel to anyone who has been in a red list country in the previous ten days unless they are arriving in to one of the designated airports.
Travellers arriving to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will face similar restrictions, but have been told directed to check with the devolved governments to see how the plans are being enforced.
What can I do during the quarantine period?
The rules around the quarantine period are strict, with travellers told they must remain within their room for the ten day period and that meals will be delivered to them by hotel staff.
However, there are some limited conditions which could see people able to leave quarantine. Apart from obvious cases where there is a genuine medical emergency or danger of illness or injury, the guidance says other exemptions will be made for those who have legal obligations, including attending court or satisfying bail conditions.
Exemptions for exercise may be allowed but only with "special permission" from hotel staff or security, and the guidance warns this is "not guaranteed" in every case.
But the exemptions have come under scrutiny from some medical experts who have hit out at guidance for hotel staff reported by the BBC which could see guest permitted to leave their rooms to get fresh air or to smoke.
Speaking on Friday, Home Office minister Victoria Atkins defended the policy, saying it was "reasonable" to allow people to leave their rooms.
She said: "I think allowing someone a gulp of fresh air during a 10-day visit in a hotel, with all the very strict measures that we have, I think is reasonable – but of course we will keep these measures under review.”
Special exemptions will also apply to those who are facing domestic abuse which occurs "within a group quarantining together".
What happens if I refuse to quarantine or take tests?
Ministers have announced a series of tough punishments for those who fail to follow the quarantine rules.
Travellers who attempt to dodge the quarantine rules by providing false information on their entry forms have been warned they could face fines of up to £10,000, a prison sentence of up to 10 years, or both.
Even those who arrive through a designated entry port but who have failed to book a quarantine package will be hit with fines of up to £4,000 and will still be required to pay for the package on arrival.
Those who break the quarantine rules, including by leaving their quarantine accommodation early, have been threatened with penalty fines of up to £10,000.
A further fine of up to £2,000 could be levied against those who refuse to take the mandatory tests required during quarantine.
But the strict policies have already come under fire from MPs and legal experts, with former attorney general Dominic Grieve saying it was "absurd" that ministers had planned to use a 40-year-old forgery law as the legal basis for threatening travellers with 10 years in prison for lying on their entry forms.
Who is exempt?
Like other recent travel restrictions, the quarantine policy details a number of people who are exempt from following the rules.
These include hauliers arriving from Portugal, which is one of the designated red list countries, provided they can prove the travel is related to their work.
Military and defence personnel and government contractors working on critical defence work will also be exempt provided they have direct permission from the Ministry of Defence.
The same exemption applies for UK border officials who would be conducting work during the period which they would be otherwise expected to quarantine.
Special permissions will also be granted to diplomats and their families as well as other representative of foreign governments and international organisations, provided they have permission either from the UK Foreign Office or from senior members of their own governments.
John Johnston is a reporter for CSW's sister title PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared.