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Travel bans, red lists and quarantines: how do they affect UK visa applicants?


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With travel bans from so-called “red list” countries, the suspension of travel corridors and today’s long-awaited introduction of compulsory hotel quarantine, those already holding or who have applied for UK visas will be concerned about how these measures may affect their visas and ability to travel to the UK.

There has been a fair amount of negative comment about why people are travelling at all, usually with reference to social media influencers sunning themselves in Dubai or the Caribbean (especially galling when you’re stuck in lockdown in the midst of a British winter), But significant numbers of people do have legitimate reasons to travel, including to see or join family, to work or study, to seek asylum or for medical treatment. 

Continuing the government’s favoured “Australian-style” theme for any border policy, the Health Secretary, announcing the new restrictions on 9 February 2021, said that the government had “been taking advice from our Australian colleagues… on quarantine”. And so it is that we now have “managed quarantine hotels”, a concept that both Australia and New Zealand implemented in March 2020. Regulations to legally implement these quarantine hotels were published on 12 February (for England) and 14 February (for Scotland), and came into force at 4am on 15 February.

I am not going to comment here on the legality of the new rules, but instead will look at some of the practicalities which travellers to the UK may face.

How the restrictions will affect people boils down essentially to three factors:

  • Where they are travelling from
  • Who they are
  • Why they are travelling

What are the rules for travel from Monday 15 February 2021?

Travel corridors

All travel corridors remain suspended. This means that all travellers from all countries except Ireland face quarantine on arrival, unless they work in an exempt job.

Travel from countries on the “red list” 

Travel is banned for people who have visited or passed through a “red list” country in the ten days before arrival. This does not apply to British or Irish nationals or those who have “residence rights” in the UK (more on this below). For these people, there are different requirements depending on which UK nation they arrive in. 

In England, they must:

  • Enter through an approved airport 
  • Book and pay for a managed quarantine hotel 
  • Provide a negative coronavirus test result taken in the three days before travelling
  • Complete a passenger locator form
  • Quarantine for ten days in their booked hotel, unless exempt
  • Take a coronavirus test on day 2 and day 8, a positive test extending the period of quarantine.

Exemptions are limited to very narrow list of jobs including hauliers from Portugal, defence personnel, diplomats and those doing “essential border security duties”.

A further practical consideration is the ban on aircraft and ships whose last point of departure was from a country in Schedule B2 of the regulations. This list is more limited than the far longer “red list” in Schedule B1 but includes flights from Portugal and the UAE, both of which are major gateway hubs for flights from many other destinations. This will limit the availability of flights into the UK and potentially necessitate more convoluted journeys here.

Travel from countries not on the “red list”

Everyone entering the UK is subject to restrictions, but again there are different requirements depending on which UK nation they arrive in.

In England, if arriving from outside the Common Travel Area they must:

  • Provide a negative coronavirus test result taken in the three days before travelling
  • Book and pay for a travel test package that includes a coronavirus test on day 2 and day 8 (although they can pay extra for the “Test to Release” scheme, so have a test on day 5 and stop self-isolating then if negative)
  • Complete a passenger locator form
  • Quarantine for ten days, at home, with friends or in a hotel (not a “managed quarantine hotel”)

In Scotland anyone entering the country from outside the Common Travel Area has to self-isolate in a hotel. 

There is a list of jobs that may be exempt from one or more of these restrictions.

Penalties for breaching the rules

Stiff penalties have been announced for those breaching the rules. These range from £1,000 for failing to take a test up to £10,000 or imprisonment for up to ten years for providing false information on a passenger locator form.

What if I have a visa for the UK?

If a person holds a visa for the UK then they may have “residence rights” and so be treated as exempt from the “red list” rules.

Who has residence rights does not appear to be defined anywhere on the government website pages setting out the new scheme, or in the regulations. But according to the Home Office Visas & Citizenship External Relations Team, it includes people with existing:

  • Indefinite leave to remain
  • Limited leave to enter or remain e.g. students or workers (but not visitors)
  • Settled or pre-settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme

What if I can’t travel before my visa expires?

Where hotel quarantine is required, the availability of flights and hotel rooms may practically limit the number of people actually able to travel to the UK. Reports from Australia are that the limited number of airline seats and hotel places is restricting the number of people allowed to enter at any time. There was a considerable amount of disgruntlement reported about tennis players flying in for the Australian Open while ordinary Australians are unable to travel back. Family contacts in New Zealand have reported having to book a quarantine hotel three months ahead of travel.

One of the early helpful changes made by the Home Office in response to the coronavirus was to extend the validity for travel of vignettes for longer-term visas from 30 days to 90 days. If a person is unable to travel within the period that their visa is valid, they can apply for a replacement vignette. Colleagues have reported this being possible even some months after the original vignette expired. There’s a further fee payable (of course) of £154 for this. 

Deadline for collecting BRP and registering with police

The letters issued to recent clients on the time limits for collecting biometric residence permits (BRPs) and registering with the police are somewhat confusing.

On BRPs, the Home Office letters say that this must be done before the vignette expires or within ten days of arrival, but not until after the required quarantine period has passed. However they then go on to say that BRPs will be held at the collection point for 90 days from the start date on the vignette. So it seems that the new travel rules should not cause an additional issue with this.  

On police registration, the letters state this must be done within seven days of arrival with no mention of observing quarantine at all. 

Is it still worth applying for a visa for the UK?

This really depends on why a person is travelling to the UK and when they need to be here.


While visiting the UK is still permitted from non-red-list countries, the requirement to quarantine on arrival is likely to mean that only longer-term trips are viable — especially if the traveller then has to factor in a period of quarantine on return to their home country. The coronavirus guidance says that visit or transit visa decisions may be delayed if from a “red list” country until the restriction on that country is lifted.

Moving to the UK

For those coming to the UK for longer-term reasons, it will likely be a question of timing.

Here are a couple of scenarios that clients have come to us with recently.

Example 1

Corporate client wanting to sponsor a Skilled Worker from outside the UK 

They will need to think carefully not only about when they want the job to start but about the ability of the prospective employee to travel to the UK, as this will inform the start date they put on a Certificate of Sponsorship and the date they assign it.  

The guidance is confusing about what to do if a start date changes. Sponsors must let the Home Office know via the Sponsorship Management System if a start date changes. The coronavirus guidance says that if a start date has changed they will not automatically refuse a visa. But the guidance for sponsors states that if the start date is delayed by more than 28 days then the employer must stop sponsoring the worker. 

If the worker cannot travel in the immediate future then the sponsor may be best advised to delay starting the process altogether.

Example 2

Family client looking to relocate with a partner and children back to the UK from a “red list” country

This client wants to be back in the UK by September 2021 to resume a university course. In addition they won’t meet the partner definition till July 2021 when they will have two years’ cohabitation.

While they do not need to travel immediately, so the situation may have changed by the time they apply, they will need to factor in the additional potential costs of hotel quarantine and testing for a family of four. 

This article is correct at time of writing. For the latest state of play on coronavirus restrictions, see our regularly updated page on Coronavirus and the UK immigration system.

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Bryony Rest

Bryony Rest is head of the immigration department at David Gray Solicitors. She has recognised expertise and many years’ experience in all aspects of immigration law and is accredited by the Law Society as an Advanced Caseworker (Level 3) and Supervisor.