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Q&A: Can you clarify the new rules on PCR tests and self isolation for travellers

The emergence of the Omicron variant has changed the rules for travellers to take effect 4am 30 November.

by Sharron Livingston

Q: Can you clarify the new rules on PCR tests and self-isolation for travellers

For a meagre few weeks, it seemed that we could travel again, albeit, with the bane of paperwork. Then a new variant of the Covid-19 virus, Omicron, has turned up to scupper the long-awaited easing.

The Omicron variant is considered one of “heightened” concern and so far there have been 14 cases identified in the UK. The government has reacted by reinstating the expensive PCR test for all arrivals who must self-isolate until a negative result is achieved.

The government says: “After 04:00 Tuesday 30 November 2021 lateral flow tests will no longer be accepted.”

This means the end – at least for now – of the cheaper and faster lateral flow (antigen) test as the PCR test is considered to be more efficient at detecting the Omicron variant. This applies to everyone regardless of their vaccination status.

In the meantime, the Red List is back and is now populated by 10 southern African nations and flights from these countries to the UK have been banned. 

The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said: “We will review these measures in three weeks to ensure they are working effectively.

Note: If you are entering the UK from the Common Travel Area (Channel Islands, Ireland, Isle of Man)  you will require neither testing nor quarantine.

Here is an overview of how the new rules will apply to you:

Travelling into the UK from a Red List country

UK citizens arriving from a country on the Red List – currently South Africa, Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe – must isolate in a quarantine hotel for 11 nights at a cost of up to £2,285, which includes all meals and two PCR tests. They face a £10,000 penalty if they flout the rules. 

All non-UK citizens will not be allowed to enter at all.

Travelling into the UK from countries that are not on the Red List

Those that are fully vaccinated along with children between the ages of 5-17 travelling with adults must book a PCR test taken within two days and must isolate until a negative result is received. This applies even if the result is delayed. PCR tests can be slow to process but are suitable to identify the omicron variant.

The government says: “If your PCR test results are delayed, you must self-isolate until your test result is known or until day 14 after arrival, whichever is sooner.”

There are times when a test comes back inconclusive. If this happens you will have to self-isolate for 10 full days after arrival.

The government says: “If you took a PCR test and the result is unclear, you self-isolate for 10 full days. You can choose to take another private test. If the result is negative, you can stop self-isolating.”

What about unvaccinated travellers?

Unvaccinated travellers must still take a pre-departure test and a PCR test on days two and eight after arrival in the UK and self-isolate for 10 days.

I have a holiday booked to South Africa, what should I do?

Do nothing. If you booked with an Atol-protected travel company your trip will be cancelled and when it is, you can expect a refund.

If you booked directly with an airline the flight will be cancelled and you will be offered a refund or an option to rebook. 

Regarding accommodation, your rights may vary. Check their Covid cancellation policy to see if you are eligible for a refund, and contact them directly.

What about the Passenger Locator Form?

All travellers must complete a passenger locator form within 48 hours before arrival. However, the form is currently being updated so anyone arriving after 4am on Tuesday must wait until 4am on Monday to complete the form.

How much does a PCR test cost?

The price varies from £70 to £150. The faster the turnaround of the result the more you are likely to pay. You can get tested at airports and these tests cost around £120.00. If you don’t mind isolating you can get yours delivered to your home and these will be cheaper.

Note: You cannot use an NHS test for international travel; you must use a private test provider.

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