Since March 2020, countries like Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand have been imposing a mandatory hotel stay on arriving travellers. Like quarantines down the centuries, the idea is simple: to stop incoming travellers infecting the local population.
Now, almost a year later, the UK has decided it too will require travellers to quarantine in a hotel if they return from any of 33 so-called ‘red list’ countries. The new requirements come into force today, and travellers are responsible for paying their own way, at a maximum cost of £1,750 per head for ten days’ accommodation, transport and testing.
But what’s it actually like to quarantine in a hotel? As chance would have it, Cass Knowlton – editorial director of Time Out Australia – is well placed to answer that question. She’s currently locked down in a hotel in Tasmania, after a positive case in her airport terminal turned her trip from a four-day getaway into an unexpected two-week quarantine.
The exact rules of hotel quarantine vary from country to country, but in most cases arrivals are subject to close surveillance, not allowed to leave their rooms, and have meals and any other essential supplies delivered – usually at their own expense. It’s definitely not a fun getaway, as Cass tells us.
‘Two of us are stuck in one single hotel room for 23.5 hours a day,’ she explains. ‘Once a day we are brought outside by the guards to walk around in a small pen set up in the hotel car park. We are fortunate that the windows open in our room, but not every quarantine hotel has that ability.’
In the UK, those in hotel quarantine can order what they like from room service, as well as get food delivered to reception from nearby restaurants. In Australia, Cass isn’t so lucky: ‘Three times a day, there is a knock at our door to let us know our packed lunches are there. We wait a minute, to give the guard time to leave the hallway, then open it and bring our food inside. There’s no menu or choice given, though if you have dietary restrictions the hotel will accommodate them.’
She, is, however, able to order certain things to her room from nearby shops, like laundry soap, dental floss or fruit and snacks. But certain items weren’t allowed: ‘We tried to get a bread knife (to cut some fancy sourdough we had planned to bring back to Melbourne) and some string (to hang up laundry), and neither were permitted.’
So that’s supplies – but apart from maybe working remotely and taking video calls in the bathroom, what do you actually do all day during hotel quarantine? According to Cass, a surprising amount of time is spent chatting on the phone to healthcare officials: ‘Tasmanian and Victorian health authorities have been in daily contact by phone, checking up on us, making sure we are doing okay and doing the right thing.’
But boredom is a major problem. ‘You’ll go crazy if you don't have a routine. Keep busy – keep your mind and body active.’ And although there’s lots of fun to be had online these days, Cass is missing analogue entertainment. ‘Laptops and phones are great: I am extremely glad I brought my laptop for a four-day jaunt. But it sure would be nice to have a board game, cards or dice. Or even a jigsaw puzzle – and I loathe jigsaw puzzles.’
Above all, Cass would advise anyone travelling to, from or within a country with hotel quarantine to pack for their holiday… plus two weeks. Travel is still banned for UK residents – but if and when it restarts, there’s a strong chance the rules could suddenly change while you’re overseas. ‘I wish I’d packed enough medication and contact lenses,’ Cass says. ‘Friends are sending things down by courier, but who knows when that will arrive.’
Read more about Cass’s experience of hotel quarantine in Australia.