All 11 countries on England’s travel red list are to be taken off it from 4am on Wednesday, amid diminishing concern about Omicron cases being imported into the country.
Given that the variant has already taken hold in the UK – making up a third of new infections in London – the health secretary, Sajid Javid, announced that mandatory hotel quarantine for those arriving from some southern African countries was set to end.
Instead, all travellers arriving in England will be able to isolate at home. If double vaccinated, they can be released with a negative PCR test taken within two days of arrival. If not they must stay at home for 10 days and get a test before day two and another on day eight or later.
The red list was cleared at the end of October, but after the discovery of the Omicron variant in South Africa, 11 countries were put back on it. They were: Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Omicron’s spread through the UK has been swift. The UK Health Security Agency said on Monday that the number of confirmed cases of the variant was 4,700, but estimated daily infection numbers were at about 200,000.
Javid announced in parliament on Tuesday that the red list was being emptied, saying it had become “less effective in slowing the incursion of Omicron from abroad”. He said the requirement to get tested before departure would remain in place.
He had hinted at the move in a statement to the Commons last week. Under pressure from Tory MPs who raised concerns about the aviation and tourism sectors, Javid said that because Omicron cases would probably spread quickly in the UK, there would be “less need to have any kind of travel restrictions at all”.
As health restrictions are devolved, it will be up to the administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland whether to follow suit.
The Labour MP Ben Bradshaw called for people “currently incarcerated in so-called quarantine hotels in inhumane conditions” to be immediately released and allowed to complete their isolation at home. The Conservative Andrew Murrison said it was “completely untenable” to “bang people up” in the hotels.
Steve Barclay, the Cabinet Office minister, later confirmed people in hotel quarantine would be permitted “early release” and allowed to “follow the relevant rules as if they have arrived from a non-red list country” if they tested negative. Those who tested positive will have to remain in the facility.
Gary Lewis, the chief executive of the Travel Network Group, which represents more than 1,200 travel businesses in the UK, welcomed the wiping of the red list, but added: “We are fully behind safe overseas travel but we have to be pragmatic, Covid is here for the long run … There have been too many poorly timed, kneejerk travel impositions.”
Last week, EU leaders discussed easing similar curbs. Reuters reported a senior official as saying the travel ban was “a time-limited measure” but there were no immediate plans to lift it.
The US has kept up its own travel ban, with the White House’s chief medical adviser saying action was taken when the country was “in the dark” about the variant, to give time to assess its threat. Some political leaders in southern Africa said the restrictions were unfair.
Cyril Ramaphosa, the president of South Africa, said he was “deeply disappointed” by the action. According to the BBC, he said: “The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to, and recover from, the pandemic.”
Akinwumi Adesina, the president of the African Development Bank Group, tweeted last week: “Now that Omicron has been found in many non-African and developed countries, why are travels from those countries not banned? Singling out African countries is very unfair, non-scientific and discriminatory.”