A limited system of hotel quarantine will be introduced in England this week but initially only for British residents returning from countries with new, more virulent forms of coronavirus, including Portugal, South Africa and Brazil.
Whitehall sources said Downing Street would “reserve the right” to go further by requiring all visitors from anywhere in the world to isolate for 10-days at their own expense.
The decision to limit the requirement at first to certain countries came after travel industry executives warned that imposing mandatory hotel quarantine on all arrivals immediately could prompt a rush of UK citizens returning home in days, making it hard to find sufficient hotel rooms near airports.
The move effectively means only British residents will be affected. Bans had already been put in place over recent months on visitors entering the UK from South Africa, Portugal, Brazil and other South American countries in a bid to control the spread of new variants of the virus that scientists fear could be resistant to existing vaccines.
Senior ministers on the “coronavirus operations committee” will meet on Tuesday to finalise the quarantine policy for new arrivals.
Direct flights to the UK from South Africa, Brazil and other South American countries are already banned but British residents have been able to return home through indirect routes and then self-isolate.
The prospect of tougher restrictions in England and other European countries prompted a plunge in the share price of airlines and tourism operators on Monday.
Boris Johnson, the prime minister, said he wanted “maximum possible protection against reinfection from abroad” to prevent importing any new variants.
Matt Hancock, health secretary, alluded to the new plans at a press conference on Monday evening. “It is important that we protect from new variants should they have vaccine evasion and it is also reasonable to take a precautionary principle to protect this country,” he said.
With coronavirus travel restrictions in place around the world, visitor numbers are running at just 2.5 per cent of pre-pandemic levels equating to 12,000 people coming through UK airports daily.
A mandatory hotel quarantine for new arrivals, a policy used by other countries, would act as a further deterrent as it would impose a £1,000 cost per head for the 10-day stay.
The prime minister’s allies said no decision had been taken “in principle on any further extensions” of the quarantine requirement to other countries. Rishi Sunak, chancellor, is among those said to be sympathetic to a blanket policy for all arrivals.
Ministers first introduced a system of self-quarantine in June last year, three months after the start of the pandemic, although they maintained “travel corridor” exemptions for countries with low incidence of the virus.
They have tightened entry restrictions further in recent weeks, including the introduction of mandatory pre-departure testing for anyone arriving from abroad.
The aviation industry on Monday said the government needed to provide a plan for how it will roll back any new rules to allow travel to restart.
“Less than two weeks ago the UK introduced some of the highest levels of restrictions in the world . . . there must be a road map out of these restrictions as soon as it is safe,” the Airport Operators Association and Airlines UK said in a joint statement.
Many smaller airports, including London Southend, Cardiff and Newquay, have stopped all scheduled flights, leaving the vast majority of passengers passing through London’s Heathrow.
Industry figures had warned there would be difficulty finding hotel space for so many people given that there are only about 10,000 hotel beds close to Heathrow — even before some temporary coronavirus-related closures.
The UK’s largest airport said that if ministers opted for a blanket hotel quarantine it would mean “effectively the closure of our borders which carries huge ramifications for Britain and its aviation sector, already on its knees”.