For the past six months, travellers arriving in the UK from the vast majority of countries have had to spend two weeks in self-isolation.
The quarantine time was suddenly reduced to 10 days from 14 December 2020.
But starting the following day, 15 December, travellers living in England will be able to take a Covid-19 test after five clear days of leaving a quarantine country – ie one that is not on the government’s “travel corridor list”. If it proves negative you can end self-isolation.
The option also applies to anyone arriving before 15 December. If they take a test on that day (or five days after leaving for the UK, whichever is the latest), they will be able to stop quarantining from the moment of a negative result.
How does the system work at present?
At present everyone travelling to the UK – unless they are arriving from one of a handful of countries on the “travel corridors” list – must go straight home and stay there for 10 days, with the timing starting from the day after the date of arrival.
So someone arriving on 9 December is expected to remain at the same address up to 0.01am on 20 December.
The rules for self-isolation are onerous: the expectation is that you will not leave your home for a fortnight. You should arrange for food to be delivered, and even taking the dog for a walk is against the law.
Everyone travelling to England from the many non-exempt nations will still need to self-isolate. But on the passenger locator form that everyone arriving into the UK must complete, you will be able to opt for “test to release,” as the new system will be called.
You should book a private test from a company appearing on the official government list before travelling to the UK – though people who return and then decide they want to take a test can update the passenger locator form to that effect.
After completing five full days since you left a quarantine country, can either go to a pre-booked private testing centre, or take a pre-booked test at home and despatch it.
If the result is negative, you are free to end self-isolation and take your place in the wide world – or at least to the extent permitted under the prevailing local rules.
How do the dates work, exactly?
Two examples to demonstrate how the government’s test-to-release system applies to trips: one direct from a quarantine country, and one via a “travel corridor” nation.
1 On 10 December you fly from Frankfurt to Manchester. In this case you can take a test from the fifth day after this date, ie 15 December.
2 On 15 December you fly from Johannesburg to Dubai, and spend five days there before continuing to London Heathrow on 20 December.
Your time in quarantine-free UAE counts towards your five full days since leaving South Africa. So when you land at Heathrow airport, you can immediately seek a test. If it is negative you have no need to self-isolate. That assumes that Heathrow is on the list of approved testing centres, which has yet to be confirmed.
I am arriving earlier in December. Are you sure I can take a test?
Yes. The DfT has confirmed to The Independent that anyone arriving in England before 10 December will be able to shorten their quarantine by applying for a test on 15 December.
For example, someone who arrived on 11 December would normally be expecting to be able to leave their home at one minute past midnight on 26 December – the two weeks’ self-isolation starts from the day after arrival.
But by taking a test on 16 December, five days after their arrival, they can end quarantine as soon as a negative test result is received on that date.
Travellers arriving on 12, 13 and 14 December will also be able to shorten the length of quarantine, by booking a test for five days after they were last in a quarantine country.
What about the other UK nations?
Test-to-release applies to England only at present. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which are responsible for health issues such as quarantine, may follow suit, but not until the New Year at the earliest.
Until the devolved administrations sign up, residents of those countries will still be expected to self-isolate for two weeks, even if they are flying into an English airport and travelling on from there.
How much is the test likely to cost – and how long will it take?
Probably between £100 and £120. The Independent has not yet been able to assess the timing of tests because of limited information, but is contacting the approved operators.
Travel firms, whether airports such as Gatwick or Heathrow or tour operators such as Tui and Jet2, may well set up deals that cut the cost.
Of course you can choose not to be tested, in which case you simply carry on with your quarantine for the full 10 days, counted from the day after you arrived in the UK.
Will it make much difference to travellers?
"Test to release” will be welcomed by people returning to the UK for Christmas to see family, because it will save them up to five days of staying indoors.
But it’s hard to see that business travellers, weekenders or simply people wanting a week in a high-temperature, low-risk destination such as Egypt will regard five days as acceptable.
What does the travel industry think of the move?
Senior figures in airlines, airports and the wider travel industry, who have been seething since blanket quarantine was first imposed in June, have publicly welcomed the announcement – but privately regard it as much too little, much too late. “Even five days’ quarantine is a travel ban in all but name,” said one.
They are continuing to demand that self-isolation should be replaced by a rigorous testing regime.
Why has this taken so long?
The government in London says it has taken six months to be confident about a test-to-release scheme, and that there will now be enough private providers to allow the system to work.