All travellers will be required to take a Covid-19 pre-departure test, amid warnings that the time between infection and infectiousness could be shorter with the new strain.
Health secretary Sajid Javid cautioned the variant was spreading within communities, rather than just being linked to international travel.
On Monday, Javid told MPs: “The Omicron variant is continuing to spread here and around the world. According to the latest data there are now 261 confirmed cases in England, 71 in Scotland and four in Wales, bringing the total number of confirmed cases across the UK to 336.
“This includes cases with no links to international travel. So, we can conclude that there is now community transmission across multiple regions of England.”
The decision on pre-departure tests followed calls from Labour to implement the process.
So, what are the new travel rules?
Anyone travelling to the UK from countries not on the red list will be required to take a pre-departure test a maximum of 48 hours before leaving, regardless of their vaccination status.
If you test positive, you will not be allowed to travel. If you are an EU resident or citizen, you can use the EU Digital Covid Certificate (EU-DCC) to provide proof of your test result. This can be in either digital or paper format.
According to the government website, the test can be a PCR rest, a LAMP test or an antigen test, such as lateral flow test, but with performance standards of ≥97% specificity, ≥80% sensitivity at viral loads above 100,000 copies/ml.
NHS tests cannot be used for the purpose of pre-departure testing before travel to England, so you can’t take an NHS test abroad to use before you return.
If you have recently recovered from Covid but are no longer infectious, you should use a lateral flow test, which has lower sensitivity than PCR or LAMP tests, so is less likely to return a positive result from a historic infection.
Scotland and Wales have said they will implement similar measures. However, the requirement has been greeted with dismay across the travel sector.
Javid said the measures were temporary, and acknowledged they would cause disruption. “We’re taking this early action now so we don’t have to take tougher action later on, and so that we can take every opportunity to prevent more cases from arriving in our country,” he told MPs.
Those arriving from countries on the red list of travel restrictions will need to quarantine in hotels. Nigeria was added to the rest list on Monday, after South Africa and several other African countries 10 days ago.
What has prompted the new travel measures?
The health secretary said the government cannot “say for certain” whether Omicron will escape Covid vaccines, or how severe a disease it will cause.
“We are learning more about this new variant all the time,” he said. “Recent analysis from the UK Health Security Agency suggests that the window between infection and infectiousness may be shorter for the Omicron variant than for the Delta variant, but we don’t yet have a complete picture of whether Omicron causes more severe disease or indeed how it interacts with the vaccines.
“We can’t say for certain at this point whether Omicron has the potential to knock us off our road to recovery.
“We are leaving nothing to chance. Our strategy is to buy ourselves times and to strengthen our defences while our world-leading scientists assess this new variant and what it means for our fight against Covid-19.”
Javid said of the cases identified so far, none had resulted in hospital admission.
How has the travel industry responded?
The travel sector has called for the government to cap the cost of PCR tests for travellers as well as provide more support for the industry.
Turnover for tour operators has been at just 22% of normal levels, according to the travel association Abta, which has said the new measures could “tip companies over the edge”, according to the Guardian.
The restrictions on South Africa have cut holiday travel before the country’s peak winter season, while additional testing and the reintroduction of PCR instead of lateral flow tests will likely put off further travellers.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer also said the government must now do “whatever it can” to lower the price of Covid-19 pre-departure tests.
“I would have liked to see the government act more quickly,” he said on Monday. “As ever, they are behind the curve. As soon as we saw the scientific evidence saying there should be pre-departure tests, we called on the government to do this last week. The government delayed, as they always do.
“They’ve done it now, that’s a good thing. But the government needs to get ahead instead of being behind.”
He added: “I also want to see the government doing whatever it can to bring the price of these tests down because lots of people… (are) getting really hammered by prices that can’t be justified.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.