Britain’s long-haul travel industry has suffered another blow with the addition of four more countries to the so-called coronavirus “red list” of high-risk countries.
The third big Gulf air hub, Qatar, has been added to the list – meaning travellers who merely change planes at Doha airport face 11 nights of hotel quarantine at a price of £1,750 for a solo passenger returning to the UK.
The Department for Transport (DfT) announced that Qatar, as well as Ethiopia, Oman and Somalia, would be added to the red list at 4am on Friday 19 March – giving arrivals 82 hours’ warning and allowing many of them to come home early.
The DfT said the move was in response to “new data showing an increased risk of importation of variants of concern”.
There is likely to be an immediate rush to return from the Gulf state. The addition of Doha will affect many travellers from Asia, Africa and Australia who have plans to transit the airport.
The UK’s Global Travel Taskforce report in November 2020 vowed to “investigate measures to facilitate safe transit”. But nothinng has changed, and any affected passengers may be seek earlier departure dates to beat the deadline.
Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel, said that the sudden change would undermine consumer confidence.
“The addition of Qatar shows the risk of booking future travel,” he said.
“If the country you’re holidaying in is added that’s a £1,750 bill for hotel quarantine. Government needs a way to remove or reduce this risk for holidays.”
Red list countries are often described as facing a travel ban or flight ban, but neither is accurate. Planes from Oman, Ethiopia and Qatar are likely to continue to operate, bringing in cargo and flying travellers out to Muscat, Addis Ababa and Doha.
But they are not allowed to bring passengers in. Instead, returning British residents must book flights through third countries, significantly adding to the risk for themselves and others.
The government insists the passenger ban is “to reduce the risk of importing variants of concern”, while in fact the ban on travellers using direct flights may do the opposite by forcing them to have many more contacts on the journey.
Paul Charles, chief executive of the travel consultancy The PC Agency, said “Adding Qatar to the UK’s high-risk red list means no-one can transit without having to hotel quarantine on their return.
“This effectively adds tens of destinations to the high-risk list.”
The news will also cause dismay at Heathrow airport. In December Dubai was by far the biggest source of passengers; after the UAE joined the red list, Doha became the leading destination.
Portugal and Mauritius will be removed from the red list at 4am on Friday. People planning to travel from these countries are likely to defer their journeys in order to avoid hotel quarantine.
Of the 100 or so daily arrivals from red list countries, a significant number have been from Portugal, where many UK residents have family connections or property.
The removal of Portugal may cut the rate of arrivals. About 1,200 people are currently in hotel quarantine, which is likely to reduce.
The government says it has more than 58,000 hotel rooms on standby.