SPICe FAQs – COVID-19: international travel and quarantine

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Since the introduction of managed isolation for international arrivals into the UK, we have been receiving enquiries about the quarantine process. This blog provides the answers to some of these questions and was last updated on 24 February 2021.  The contents pop-out below will help you navigate this blog.

COVID-19: international travel and quarantine

Anyone arriving in one of Scotland’s international airports from outside the Common Travel Area (the CTA, comprising United Kingdom, Ireland, the Isle of Man, and the Channel Islands) must:

In his statement on 9 February, the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, Michael Matheson MSP, pointed to clinical advice on restricting international travel:

“The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies concluded in papers published last week that ‘reactive, geographically targeted travel bans cannot be relied upon to stop importation of new variants.’ It went on to highlight ‘the lag between emergence and identification of variants of concern’ as well as ‘the potential for indirect travel’ to the UK via a third country. […]

With very limited genome sequencing taking place globally, the data on new variants is unreliable. It is therefore hard to say with confidence, even for the variants that we know about, where the high-risk countries are. That is why the Scottish Government wants a comprehensive approach to managed isolation.”

Managed isolation is required for the following scenarios:

  • Where a person arrives directly into Scotland from outside the Common Travel Area, unless they qualify under an exemption.
  • Where a person arrives in Scotland from another part of the CTA and has, in the preceding 10 days, departed or travelled through an acute risk country.
  • Where a person arrives in Scotland from the Republic of Ireland and has, in the preceding 10 days, departed or travelled through an acute risk country.

The list of acute risk countries can be found on the Scottish Government website. This is based on the identification of new variants of Coronavirus in Brazil, South Africa and a host of linked countries. All non-British and Irish nationals, visa holders and permanent residents who arrive in the UK are banned from entry when travelling from these countries.

Anyone arriving in Scotland from another part of the CTA, who has departed or travelled through a country not on the acute risk list in the last 10 days, must self-isolate. However, they can do so at home or in their own accommodation. A COVID-19 test on day 2 and day 8 is still required for international arrivals isolating at home.

Travellers flying to Scotland from outside the CTA, or from another part of the CTA but who have, in the preceding 10 days, departed or travelled through an acute risk country, must use an online portal in order to book and pay for a Covid Testing Package and for managed quarantine in a hotel. The portal is operated by the UK Government. In his statement to Parliament on 9 February, the Cabinet Secretary provided some background information relating to the procurement process for quarantine hotels:

“Our aim has always been to manage international travel on a four-nations basis where possible. We are therefore engaging with the UK and Welsh Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive to agree a joint approach to contracting the transport and accommodation services required for managed isolation. That will involve a common approach to the procurement of hotels and related services, initially in England and Scotland, based on a UK Government contract. That approach will have the flexibility to respond to the different policy direction that we are taking to ensure that all arrivals in Scotland are required to enter quarantine. […]

We have identified six hotels close to Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow airports, with a combined capacity of 1,300 rooms.”

Anyone required to quarantine in managed isolation must book and pay for their accommodation online through the UK Government portal. The cost is £1,750 for the first traveller in a room, £650 for an additional adult or a child over 12, and £325 for a child aged 5-12. If the quarantine has to be extended beyond the minimum 10 days, additional daily charges apply: £152 for the first adult, £41 for an additional adult or child over 12, and £12 for a child aged 5-12.

The quarantine package includes hotel accommodation and food (three meals per day as well as fruit and soft drinks, water, tea and coffee), transfers, security and two Covid tests.

Travellers who are facing emergency financial hardship and are unable to pay for the quarantine package can apply for a deferred payment plan. This is only available for those who already receive income-related benefits, and they will be required to pay back the debt to the UK government in 12 monthly instalments.

On 9 February the Cabinet Secretary said:

“We will develop a managed isolation welfare fund for travellers who may struggle to meet the charges associated with quarantine.”

Subsequently the Cabinet Secretary reported on 16 February that:

“The arrangements for the welfare fund are in the online portal that is used when someone books their managed quarantine facility. If they are unable to meet the associated costs, rather than pay in advance, they can indicate that and their individual case is than assessed. The arrangements have therefore been put in place in the portal that has been created by the UK Government.”

For those in “emergency financial hardship” the portal currently offers the option to apply for the deferred payment plan.

Support is also available for travellers who are required to isolate at their own accommodation:

“If you need essential assistance and do not have a network of support to help you, you can contact the national helpline on 0800 111 4000, or via textphone on 0800 111 4114. The helpline is open during office hours Monday to Friday.”

The Scottish Government guidance on international travel and managed isolation includes a limited number of job-related (sectoral) exemptions for those not required to enter managed isolation on arrival in Scotland. Some exemptions only apply to travel from countries not on the acute risk list while other exemptions apply to arrivals from all countries.

Exempt from isolation, arriving from all countries:
  • border security duties – UK officials and contractors
  • Crown servants or government contractors
  • defence personnel, visiting forces and government contractors
  • diplomatic missions, international organisations, representatives of a foreign country
  • extradition
  • international prisoner escorts.

Exempt from isolation, arriving from countries not on the acute risk list:

  • aerospace engineers
  • aircraft pilots and crew
  • bus and coach drivers
  • civil aviation inspectors
  • drivers of goods vehicles
  • postal workers
  • seamen and masters, inspectors and surveyors of ships
  • transiting airside through the UK
  • transporting human cells or blood.

In addition to the above, workers in the following sectors are permitted to leave isolation for essential activities, only if arriving from countries not on the acute risk list:

  • clinical trials or studies
  • data infrastructure maintenance
  • downstream oil facility workers
  • electronic communications networks
  • flood risk management
  • IT and telecoms workers
  • medical treatment
  • medicines – human and veterinary
  • Network Rail workers
  • nuclear personnel
  • offshore oil and gas
  • OPCW and IAEA inspectors
  • quality assurance inspectors for human and veterinary medicines
  • specialist technical workers in:
  • sub-sea telecommunications infrastructure
  • goods
  • waste
  • power infrastructure
  • space infrastructure
  • water supplies and sewerage services workers.

The specific requirements for eligibility for each exemption are set out in Schedule 2 of The Health Protection (Coronavirus) (International Travel) (Scotland) Regulations 2020. Certain passengers may require a letter or official photo identification to demonstrate their exempt status. The Scottish Government guidance on sectoral exemptions provides further detail on the rules applicable to each sector.

Scottish Ministers have the power to designate an individual as a “relevant person” for specific exemptions, however, such cases are dealt with individually. The following can be designated as a relevant person:

  • a person requiring urgent medical assistance
  • a person on immigration bail
  • a person who has been detained by an immigration officer
  • a person who has been refused leave to enter the UK
  • an illegal entrant
  • an asylum seeker
  • a person who is in police custody
  • a prisoner
  • a potential victim of human trafficking
  • a person whose arrival in the United Kingdom has been arranged, for safeguarding or welfare reasons, by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office
  • a person whom the Scottish Ministers consider requires exceptional arrangements to be made on compassionate grounds.

In responding to a parliamentary question on exemptions from quarantine requirements, the First Minister stated:

“We will continue to be as flexible as we can be, both with exemptions for good reasons and in considering individual cases that may involve unique circumstances. However, the more exemptions to the rules we allow, and the more individual circumstances we cater for, the leakier a system like this becomes, and the more chance there is that, a few months from now, we will be back in lockdown because a new variant is beating the vaccine and circulating faster, and we need to get it under control. We have to do everything that we can to guard against that.”

It is an offence to fail to have a pre-departure test, to fail to complete a Passenger Locator Form, and to leave the managed isolation you are required to book.

Under the Health Protection (Coronavirus) (International Travel) (Scotland) Regulations 2020, Police Officers may issue a Fixed Penalty Notice to anyone over 18, if the Police Officer has reason to believe an offence has been committed under the Regulations.  Immigration Officers may also issue a fixed penalty notice to anyone over 18 if the Immigration Officer has reason to believe an information offence has been committed.

The fine for an information offence is set at £30 if paid within 28 days, which can increase up to a maximum of £480. For a failure to remain at specified premises, the fine is fixed at £480, followed by a report to the Procurator Fiscal for subsequent offences. The penalties for both sets of offences include maximum fines upon conviction of up to level 5 on the standard scale (£5000).

All passengers entering the UK must:
  • provide evidence of a negative COVID-19 test result taken up to 3 days before departure
  • show proof of a completed passenger locator form
  • self-isolate (or quarantine) when entering the UK from any foreign country except Ireland, unless they have a valid exemption.
The rules on quarantine, however, differ as follows:


UK Government guidance states that “You cannot travel to the UK if you’ve visited or passed through a country where travel to the UK is banned in the last 10 days, unless you’re:
  • a British national
  • an Irish national
  • anyone with residence rights in the UK […]
Everyone allowed to enter England who has visited or passed through a country where travel to the UK is banned in the last 10 days must:
  • quarantine for 10 days in a managed quarantine hotel
  • take a coronavirus (COVID-19) test on or before day 2 and on or after day 8 of quarantining
  • follow the national lockdown rules”
If you are arriving in England and have not been in a ‘red list’ country in the last 10 days there is separate guidance: “Everyone allowed to enter England from outside the Common Travel Area (Ireland, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man) must:
  • quarantine for 10 days
  • take a coronavirus (COVID-19) test on day 2 and day 8 of quarantining
  • follow the national lockdown rules”
Travellers arriving in England from a country not on the banned travel list, may be able to pay for a COVID-19 test under the Test to Release scheme to find out if they can reduce their self-isolation period.


From 15 February, you cannot travel directly to Wales if you’ve visited or passed through a country where travel to the UK is banned in the last 10 days. These banned countries are often called ‘red list’. Amber list countries and territories are places that are not in the Common Travel Area or on the red list of countries:

“If you are returning to the UK from red list country, you must arrive through one of the designated ports of entry to the UK in England or Scotland. You must then isolate for 10 days in a managed quarantine hotel.

If you travelled to Wales from an amber list countries (any country outside of the Common Travel Area and not on the red list) you must isolate for 10 days. You must also undertake additional testing while you isolate.”

Northern Ireland

Travellers must self-isolate for 10 days if returning to Northern Ireland from a country outside the Common Travel Area: “You should self-isolate in one place for the full 10 days, where you can have food and other necessities delivered, and stay away from others. You must self-isolate at the address you provided on the passenger locator form. This can include:
  • your own home
  • staying with friends or family
  • a hotel or other temporary accommodation”

The European Union has launched the Re-open EU website and app, which provides an overview of the health situation in European countries, including on quarantine and testing requirements for travellers.

The Institute for Government has provided a summary of how quarantine works in a number of other countries (as at 11/2/21). They take a look particularly at some Asian and Pacific countries including Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand, South Korea and Taiwan.

Australia’s experience with quarantine hotels has been widely commented on (for example Guardian 17/2/21, New Scientist 20/2/21, Irish Times 8/2/21, Institute for Government 22/1/21), whilst the COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry was set up by the Victorian Government to “examine matters related to Victoria’s Hotel Quarantine Program”, and reported on 21/12/20.

The Scottish Government has stated their preference is for all international travellers to be required to enter managed isolation. In an interview for the BBC on 14 February, the Cabinet Secretary Michael Matheson stated:

“What we have said is that for those who are arriving in English airports and travelling on to Scotland, that they should make it available for them to be able to go into a quarantine facility in England before travelling on to Scotland.

And, as yet, we are still waiting for the UK government to give us agreement on that.”

Alexandra Gherghiniş, Enquiries Assistant

Image source: Canva