UK ministers are hoping to announce their first deals with hotels to provide quarantine accommodation for passengers arriving from the most risky countries by Wednesday, two weeks after the system was announced, following days of wrangling with the industry.
Downing Street admitted on Monday that it still had not signed up any hotels to take part in its new system, under which British residents returning from more than 30 high-risk countries would be bussed to guarded accommodation where they must stay for 10 days. Time is running out for the scheme to be operational by the target date of February 15.
But industry and Whitehall figures said the government was close to signing up a clutch of hotels just outside Heathrow airport and was optimistic of striking more deals with venues within two miles of Manchester, Gatwick, Birmingham and City airports.
The protracted negotiations are understood to reflect hotel operators’ unhappiness at the government’s refusal to provide revenue guarantees — while expecting them to cancel all future bookings.
Hoteliers said the government was only offering to pay for rooms used for quarantining passengers despite requiring the hotels to be open only to such guests, resulting in a potential loss of revenue.
Venues also face having large numbers of empty rooms as the government plans to contract more hotels than required for the expected number of arrivals in case they underestimate how many people will need accommodation.
One industry executive said the lack of notice was also problematic: “It doesn’t give hotels much time if the announcement is Wednesday to do that in a way that won’t upset the (existing) guests who will need new accommodation.”
Hotels are currently permitted to allow key workers and those that must travel for business to stay. “Hotel bosses are not keen on doing this, if they go along with it it will only be to try to buy some goodwill with ministers,” said one industry figure.
The government resisted pressure to apply its new hotel quarantine to all passengers coming into the UK, instead introducing a more targeted programme for those returning from around 30 “red list” countries with mutant variations of coronavirus.
However, the list is updated every Thursday and could be further extended in the coming weeks, not least given the newfound concerns about the efficacy of certain vaccines against the variant first detected in South Africa.
Meanwhile Ireland is examining whether its coronavirus travel rules should be tightened after reports that British tourists were avoiding UK quarantine by returning from Middle East holidays via Irish airports.
Officials in Dublin are concerned that loopholes in travel restrictions have opened the potential for the country’s airports to be used as a “back door” by British holidaymakers who would otherwise face quarantine on their return to the UK.
Unlike travellers arriving from other parts of the world, the UK does not require people arriving from Ireland to quarantine because of the common travel area between the two countries. While people flying into Ireland from all countries must produce a negative coronavirus test, that rule does not apply to people transferring to other international flights after arriving in Irish airports.
“The issue has come up,” said a senior Irish official familiar with discussions in Micheál Martin’s government. “They have to look at the issue and see if it is something that needs to be acted on — if it’s being exploited.”
Simon Coveney, Irish foreign minister, has said the government would act if it found that a “serious problem” had emerged.