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Travel to the UK during Covid-19: What you need to know before you go

<i>OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images</i><br/>All travelers entering the UK
AFP via Getty Images
OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images
All travelers entering the UK

CNN Staff

If you’re planning to travel to the UK, here’s what you’ll need to know and expect if you want to visit during the global Covid-19 pandemic.

The basics

The United Kingdom has seen one of the highest number of deaths from Covid-19 in the world. Despite being the first country globally to start a vaccination scheme, the country experienced a deadly second wave over the winter months. The Alpha Covid variant, said to be much more infectious, was discovered in the UK, meaning that many countries canceled air links right before Christmas 2020.

In early January, the UK went into full lockdown. Although this lockdown is now being eased, some restrictions are still in place in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. See below for more.

The recent lockdown and the ongoing vaccination program have brought Covid-19 cases down in the UK, but there are now fears about the impact of the Delta Covid variant.

During the 2021 lockdown, the UK clamped down on international travel. But on May 17, non-essential international travel resumed in England, Scotland and Wales under a risk-based “traffic light” system, dividing countries into “red”, “amber” or “green” categories. This system was implemented in Northern Ireland from May 24.

For the full list of green list countries, see below.

What’s on offer

In London, the UK has one of the world’s greatest cities. But beyond the architectural marvels and nightlife of the capital, there is much to explore — the rugged peaks of the Scottish Highlands, distant Welsh lakes and the wide sweep of Cornish beaches, for starters, plus historic towns and cities such as Bath, Oxford and Harrogate.

Who can go

All travelers entering the UK, including British citizens, must present a negative Covid test taken within 72 hours of arrival.

UK residents traveling from destinations on the “red list,” which includes South Africa, India, Namibia and the United Arab Emirates, can enter the country, but they must quarantine on arrival in a hotel and follow testing requirements. See below for further details.

There are no international flights from red list countries arriving in Wales or Northern Ireland right now, so if you’ve arrived from a red list country and your final destination is in Wales or Northern Ireland, you will need to book a hotel in England or Scotland.

(The Republic of Ireland has entirely separate entrance regulations, which are enforced when crossing the land border.)

What are the restrictions?

All UK arrivals must provide a negative test taken within the past 72 hours, and complete a Passenger Locator Form before arriving in the UK.

A traffic light-based travel system — red, amber and green — is now in place in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Non-UK residents from red list countries are currently refused entry to the UK.

British residents arriving home from red list destinations, which include South Africa and India — must undergo the 10-day hotel quarantine at their own expense.

Before arriving in the UK, these travelers must purchase what the UK government calls a “quarantine package,” covering the stay in hotel quarantine and food and drink while there.

Bookings must be made through this online portal. When the scheme began, the UK government said sixteen hotels had been contracted, with 4,600 rooms set aside for these quarantining arrivals.

The charge for a single adult is £1,750. Anyone dodging quarantine risks fines ranging from £5,000 rising to £10,000.

Those arriving from places on the amber list — which currently includes France, Greece, Spain and Italy — will have to quarantine for 10 days at home upon arrival, take a pre-departure test and also take a PCR test on day two and eight of their isolation.

Travelers from amber destinations qualify for the Test to Release scheme, which means they can take a PCR test after five days’ quarantine and, if their test comes back out negative, exit quarantine and go out into the community.

Travelers arriving from the red list countries and staying in a quarantine hotel are not eligible for Test to Release. Travelers to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland also cannot take advantage of the scheme.

Travelers arriving or departing from a green destination will have to take a pre-departure test, as well as a PCR test on or before day two of their arrival back in the UK. They will not need to quarantine. Britons are only supposed to travel on vacation to places on the green list.

The countries currently on the UK’s green list are Australia; Brunei; New Zealand; Iceland; Singapore; Faroe Islands; Gibraltar; Falkland Islands; Israel; South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands and St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha; Anguilla; Antigua; Balearic Islands; Barbados; Bermuda; British Antarctic Territory; British Indian Ocean Territory; British Virgin Islands; Cayman Islands; Dominica; Grenada; Madeira; Malta; Montserrat; Pitcairn Islands and Turks and Caicos Islands.

Some of the green list destinations do not currently permit non-essential UK travelers to enter.

The UK government has said the list will be reviewed every three weeks. There’s also a green watchlist which countries could end up on if they’re at risk of moving from green to amber. Click here to view which country is on which list.

The UK government also announced plans to change amber list requirements so that travelers who are fully vaccinated won’t have to quarantine upon their return.

Intentions were also announced to change the guidance that people shouldn’t travel to amber countries.

These changes are due to take effect “later in the summer” with a date set to be confirmed in July.

Cruising has now recommenced in the UK, but the cruises departing from British ports are only for UK travelers, and are “staycation” trips traversing the UK coastline. Numbers are also at reduced capacity and other restrictions are in place.

British travelers can use the existing NHS health app as a “vaccine passport.” You can access vaccine records on the app. Alternatively, you can request a paper letter with your vaccine status.

What’s the Covid situation?

The UK suffered a devastating first wave in 2020, followed by a troubling winter in the wake of the discovery of the Alpha (Kent) variant.

There have been over 4.8 million Covid cases and more than 128,000 deaths in the UK as of July 2.

The UK was the world’s first country to begin a vaccination program, which has lessened the burden on the National Health Service.

After an initial UK-wide lockdown in spring 2020 in response to the first wave of Covid-19, for the second wave, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland developed their own region-specific measures.

Restrictions are now being eased across the UK, but what you are allowed to do in each region still varies — see more below.

On June 1, zero Covid deaths were recorded across all four nations of the UK.

However there are currently growing fears in the UK about the risk of the Delta Covid variant first identified in India.

Over 78 million people have had their first vaccination in the UK and 49.45% of the population have been fully vaccinated as of July 2.

What can visitors expect?

  • England

England is currently emerging from its third national lockdown and is approaching the final phase of its easing of restrictions.

People can now meet inside in private households or at hospitality venues in a group of six people, or two households. Outside, up to 30 people can gather.

Non-essential retail is back. England’s museums and theme parks have opened their doors.

Many restaurants, bars and pubs have also reopened for outdoor and indoor dining.

Residents of England are permitted to stay overnight elsewhere in the country (in groups of up to six, or a larger group if all those present are from no more than two households) in self-contained accommodation, such as private holiday lets. Hotels, hostels and B&Bs are also permitted to reopen in England.

Travel within England is permitted, as is travel abroad in line with the traffic light system outlined above.

June 21 was scheduled as the day when people in England could return to more of a pre-pandemic life — with nightclubs potentially reopening, and larger events returning. This date has now been pushed back to July 19. It’s still subject to change and it is worth keeping an eye on updates.

  • Wales

In Wales, up to six people from six households can dine inside at restaurants, bars and pubs.

Unlike in the other UK countries, Welsh residents cannot enter other people’s homes unless they’re in an “extended household.” Three households can join together to form an extended household.

Welsh residents can now meet in private gardens or outdoor spaces with up to 30 people.

Holiday accommodation, including hotels and self-contained accommodation, can reopen fully. Welsh residents can stay in accommodation with their household or extended household.

Theaters, museums and galleries are permitted to reopened.

Travel within Wales is permitted, as is travel abroad under the traffic light system.

  • Scotland

Scotland has adopted a “levels” system — and most of Scotland is now in Level 1 or Level 2.

In Level 1, up to six people from three households can meet inside a private home and stay overnight, while up to eight people from three households can socalize together in an indoor public place.

In a garden, beach or park, up to 12 people from 12 households can gather.

Many Scottish museums, galleries and tourism accommodation have also reopened.

Some Scottish islands have moved to Level 0. The goal is for all of Scotland to move to Level 0 on July 19.

Check the Scottish government’s website for full information on what you can do in each Level.

Travel within Scotland and the rest of the UK is permitted, as is travel abroad under the traffic light system.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said all remaining Scottish Covid restrictions should be lifted August 9, “assuming we are meeting our revised strategic aim of alleviating the harm of the virus.”

  • Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, all non-essential shops have reopened and restaurants are open for indoor and outdoor dining for up to six people from two households. From July 5, live music and theater will be allowed.

Up to six people from two households can meet in a private home. For exact guidelines, see here.

Up to 15 people (including children) from no more than three households can also socialize outdoors in a private garden. From July 5, this will be changed to 15 people from any number of households.

Overnight stays to self-contained holiday accommodation with your household — or with up to six people from no more than two households — are also now permitted. Northern Ireland outdoor visitor attractions have also reopened.

As of May 24, hotels and B&Bs have also reopened, as have museums and other indoor leisure and visitor attractions. Up to six people from two households can meet in a private home and stay overnight.

Travel within Northern Ireland is allowed now, as is travel abroad under the traffic light system.

Useful links

UK travel corridors

Wales regulations

Scotland regulations

Northern Ireland regulations

Passenger Locator Form

Our recent coverage

Many in the travel industry have recently been questioning the UK’s travel regulations. Wondering how confusion around the traffic light system has impacted British travelers? Look no further. We’ve also examined whether a UK/US travel corridor could be on the cards this summer, and we’ve looked more generally at how the pandemic and Brexit will impact the UK’s tourism appeal.

Plus, we interviewed an American who vacationed in London during lockdown in November 2020, and covered the steps being taken as UK destinations hope to avoid some of the reports of domestic travel chaos from last summer.

Once the UK gets the virus under control, there’s a vast amount to see. Check out our list of the top places to visit in the UK, or if it’s England specifically you’re interested, here are some of the loveliest spots in the country. You’ll find our list of Scotland’s top spots here.

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CNN’s Julia Buckley and Francesca Street contributed to this report

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