British travelers in South Africa are facing the prospect of spending Christmas in quarantine hotels as there are not enough rooms to accommodate the number of people currently trying to return.
Many also face costs amounting to thousands of pounds as they are forced to rebook flights and extend their stay around the limited available space.
A woman has been told there are no available rooms until December 22, and other families who have found themselves stranded have described the sudden change in quarantine rules and hotel reservation system as “chaotic” and “not suitable for the purpose”.
They accuse the government of being totally unprepared to support those trapped by the changes.
Labor Interior Minister Yvette Cooper called on the government to address the situation as soon as possible.
South Africa and nine other countries in southern Africa were again added to the travel red list this week to try to tackle the proliferation of the Omicron variant of Covid19.
Direct flights from South Africa were originally banned a week ago.
Travelers arriving from red list countries must isolate themselves at designated quarantine hotels for 10 days at their own expense.
But many now say they can not get a reservation on the day their flight is due.
Passengers can be fined £ 4000 for arriving in the UK from a red list country without a quarantine hotel reservation already in place.
“It’s been awful, just awful,” said Teresa Martin, who is originally from South Africa and traveled to spend time with her elderly mother, whom she has not seen in two years.
She was scheduled to return on December 8, but her husband, who called the booking management company on her behalf from the UK, has now been told there are no vacancies until December 22.
That will mean she will have to spend Christmas and New Year at a quarantine hotel.
“The trip itself has already been emotional,” she said.
“This turbulence in booking and flight, which changes and then arranges, finds out where you get your PCR tests and drives 10 miles to go and book it. It requires its toll.”
She has the added concern that if she is to stay in South Africa for that long, she may run out of medication she is taking for rheumatoid arthritis.
In addition to stress and emotions, families also face big bills.
A 10-day stay at a quarantine hotel costs £ 2,285 for one adult in one room, with an additional £ 1,430 per adult and £ 325 per child aged 5-11 in the same room.
Many also have to pay to rearrange flights to try to match the days when hotels are available, plus pay for extended hotel days in South Africa.
This is the situation for Hannah Pickersgill and her family, who traveled to Cape Town for a family wedding with her husband, two children, mother and brother.
She was to fly back on December 4, but could only get a hotel from December 6. She has then struggled to rearrange her planes to that date due to the high demand.
“That means my kids are not going back to school now until January, my son is getting pretty upset,” she said.
“It has made my mother very ill. She is extremely stressed. And we have wasted a lot of time and money trying to fix it.
“I can not really highlight enough … the incompetence of not having enough hotel rooms for travelers coming back.”
She and others have also criticized Corporate Travel Management (CTM), with which the private company has entered into a contract to manage hotel reservations, and many say they have struggled to get through on the phone.
Nic Bowler and his family have managed to get a hotel booking, but their flight has subsequently been modified by Virgin, and they are struggling to get through to anyone to confirm if the hotel reservation can be moved.
“I fully understand that it’s a pandemic, I fully understand that things are changing,” he said.
“But the process that the government has prescribed is just not suitable for the purpose, and it’s stressful because it really erodes family time.”
While there are more than 4,000 quarantine rooms available, the system is not as large as it was during the summer, when several countries were on the red list.
The Arora Hotel group at the time provided around 2,500 rooms spread across eight different hotels, but currently offers only around 1,500 rooms spread across three hotels.
Founder and chairman Surinder Arora said it took a lot of effort from his staff to get these hotels prepared and ready in a few days after the sudden announcement last week.
“I think if you were to ask one of the big brands or one of the bigger companies, they would tell you that we need at least a week or two to mobilize,” he said.
Turning a hotel around involves things like getting special cleaning equipment in, clearing existing reservations and massively upgrading room service capacity.
“There’s a lot of planning going into it, and you know, especially in the current climate where you can not even get all your supplies on time, whether it’s laundry, whether it’s food, staff, all that’s big problems. ” said Mr. Arora.
The Department of Health and Social Care has previously said: “We are closely monitoring the managed quarantine service to ensure we have enough capacity for those arriving from red list countries.
“We are rapidly expanding capacity in light of 10 counties being added to the red list and expect to have more rooms online this week.”
The CTM said in a statement: “CTM works closely with the 10 countries that were recently added to the red list where direct flights to the UK were initially banned.
“Frequent cancellations by airlines and the return of direct flights also result in a high number of change requests from travelers returning to the UK.
“Since the recent changes to the red list implemented to slow down the spread of the new Omicron variant, over 2,800 travelers have successfully booked managed quarantine.
“CTM works closely with the Department of Health and Social Care and all relevant parties in the UK Managed Quarantine program to ensure that transfers, accommodation, testing and security increase in line with capacity as soon as possible.”
Labor’s Yvette Cooper said: “The government needs to fix this as soon as possible.
“They should not be in such a chaotic situation 18 months into this pandemic when they have always known they needed quick contingency plans to deal with new waves of the virus or new variants.”
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