Mandatory hotel quarantine for UK residents and nationals arriving from countries on the “red list” will come into effect on 15 February – more than two weeks after the move was first announced by the prime minister.
Under the policy, people returning from more than 30 high-risk nations will have to quarantine for 10 days in government-approved accommodation.
Countries on the list include all of South America, southern Africa, Portugal and the United Arab Emirates – countries from where non-residents and nationals are already banned from entering the UK.
The policy is being introduced to avoid the importation and spread of new variants of COVID-19, amid fears that they could impact upon the efficacy of vaccines.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the move at the end of last month, with the delay in implementing the measure drawing criticism from Labour and the travel industry.
Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said it was “beyond comprehension” that the policy would not come into effect until 15 February.
“We are in a race against time to protect our borders against new COVID strains. Yet hotel quarantine will come in to force more than 50 days after the South African strain was discovered,” he said.
“Even when these measures eventually begin, they will not go nowhere near far enough to be effective in preventing further variants. As ever with this government, it is too little, too late.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said the department was “working at pace to secure the facilities we need to roll out managed quarantine for British nationals returning home from the most high-risk countries”.
They added that ministers were “rightly engaging with representatives from the hospitality, maritime and aviation industry, and learning from our friends around the world”.
The spokesperson continued: “In the face of new variants, it is important that the government continues to take the necessary steps to protect people and save lives.”
More details will be set out next week on how travellers can book into the quarantine accommodation.
The government said it had held meetings with representatives from the aviation, maritime, hotel and hospitality industries in recent days ahead of the announcement, as well as holding roundtable discussions with dozens of companies and industry representatives.
A commercial specification has been issued to hotels near ports and airports, asking them for ideas on how they can support the quarantine plans before formal contracts are awarded.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has been chosen to oversee the quarantine policy, with a new cabinet sub-committee chaired by him to spearhead the move.
The DHSC spokesperson claimed the government has taken “decisive action” throughout the pandemic and as a result has “one of the toughest border regimes in the world”.
The quarantine announcement comes after ministers removed all of the UK’s travel corridors, meaning everyone coming back into the country now has to self-isolate for 10 days, regardless of where they have come from.
People travelling to England also have to show they have tested negative for the virus within the last 72 hours.
In addition, the PM has been stressing that under England’s national lockdown, it is currently “illegal to leave home to travel abroad for leisure purposes”.
But since Mr Johnson announced the quarantine policy on 27 January, there have been persistent questions about when it would take effect.
That same day, Home Secretary Priti Patel said further details would be set out later that week, although no details were forthcoming.
The PM then told a Downing Street news conference on Wednesday that the health secretary would be setting out further details in the Commons on Thursday. But Number 10 later said this was not the case.
And since the quarantine policy was announced, the government has been facing calls for tougher action.
Labour has been demanding that ministers make travellers arriving from all countries go into mandatory quarantine.
And Scotland has opted for a more widespread approach, with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon this week announcing a “managed quarantine” for all arrivals into the country, regardless of where travellers have come from.
Stay alert to stop coronavirus spreading – here is the latest government guidance. If you think you have the virus, don’t go to the GP or hospital, stay indoors and get advice online. Only call NHS 111 if you cannot cope with your symptoms at home; your condition gets worse; or your symptoms do not get better after seven days. In parts of Wales where 111 isn’t available, call NHS Direct on 0845 46 47. In Scotland anyone with symptoms is advised to self-isolate for seven days. In Northern Ireland, call your GP.