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    Omicron variant causes passengers to scramble for flights

    Travellers and airlines are scrambling to rearrange plans as the latest Covid restrictions cause travel turmoil for people trying to return to the UK.

    Passengers criticised airlines and the government for a lack of information on returning from “red list” countries.

    One said he had found a return flight from South Africa but now cannot get a quarantine hotel in the UK.

    Omicron variant causes passengers to scramble for flights 1

    Alex Clarke, from near Reading, said a lack of hotel space meant he might have to re-arrange his return again.

    “I should have landed back in the UK this morning,” he told the BBC. “My flight was cancelled but I managed to book another for Friday. Now that’s been cancelled.

    “I found return flights via Dubai and Amsterdam, but they have now been closed off. I now have a return booked for Thursday, but the website that books quarantine hotels says everything is booked.”

    Cases of the new Covid variant – Omicron – were first recorded in South Africa last week. There are concerns it could be more infectious and less responsive to vaccines. As a result, Covid rules are being strengthened once more.

    The government has added 10 southern African countries – including South Africa where Mr Clarke is stuck – to the UK’s travel red list. The only people allowed to enter the UK from these countries are UK or Irish nations, or UK residents.

    They will have to pay for and self-isolate in a pre-booked government-approved hotel for 10 days.

    Mr Clarke, who has been staying with friends while his wife and two young children remained at home in the UK, had travelled from Cape Town to Johannesburg when he thought he had secured an alternative flight. He estimates the extra airline, hotel and UK quarantine costs will be about £4,000.

    He said: “There has been absolutely no communication from British Airways or the UK government on getting back to the UK.

    “In the one email received from BA, the helpline that BA set up went to a call centre and the person in the phone had no idea that flights to the UK had been suspended or cancelled.”

    When he telephoned again later, he was directed to BA’s website.

    Meanwhile, another traveller, Mike Haswell, from Cardiff, told the BBC on Sunday how he had been struggling to return from Malawi, where he was working.

    He reached Ethiopia, where ground staff at Addis Ababa airport refused to let UK nationals onto the flight to the UK.

    Mr Haswell said he and about 30 other UK passengers have been stuck at the airport for 18 hours and still did not know when a flight would be available.

    What are my refund rights?

    If your flight is cancelled, you are entitled to a full refund and you can choose to receive that refund in cash rather than as a voucher.

    An airline should refund the money within seven days, although some people have waited longer.

    A package holiday should be refunded, in full, within 14 days.

    Meanwhile, Virgin Atlantic has said it will operate its first flight from Johannesburg to London on Wednesday. The airline has not flown from South Africa since last Friday morning.

    All passengers will arrive into Heathrow Terminal 4, which is being reinstated as an arrival facility for red list countries and passengers. They will then go to a managed hotel quarantine facility, as per the new guidance.

    A Heathrow spokesperson said: “We are reopening Terminal 4 as a dedicated arrivals facility for red list countries on Wednesday 1 December. In the meantime, there will be no direct flights arriving from affected areas.”

    As well as adding more countries to the UK’s red list, the government has said that from 04:00 GMT on Tuesday, 30 November, anyone entering the UK will require a PCR test within 48 hours of arrival and will need to self-isolate until they have a negative result.

    However, Willie Walsh, the head of the IATA airline trade body and formerly the boss of IAG, the group that owns BA, Iberia and Aer Lingus, told the BBC that the latest developments exposed the lack of a sensible testing regime and risk-based approach.

    “I’m very disappointed to see this knee-jerk reaction by governments to the latest development,” he said.

    “It’s clear that these measures have been completely ineffective in the past but impose huge hardship on people who are trying to connect with families and friends, and clearly massive financial damage to the tourism and airline industry.”

    Mr Walsh said the failure of similar restrictions to prevent a second coronavirus wave in the UK after being implemented in May last year demonstrates they “do not have any long-term benefits” and are “not the answer”.

    “I think sensible testing regimes which have been proven to be effective could be introduced which would enable people to continue travelling in a safe environment,” he added.

    Tim Alderslade, the chief executive of Airlines UK, which represents UK-based carriers, also said the government could do more.

    “The situation is developing rapidly, and hopefully as more data emerges emergency border restrictions can be reversed quickly – and applied only where they will make a material difference,” he said.

    “In the meantime, we urge ministers to make mandatory PCR tests free of charge for impacted passengers, many of whom are now in the invidious position of having less than 48 hours to arrange extra testing whilst overseas.”

    Transport Secretary Grant Shapps tweeted that the changes were “targeted measures to provide confidence and protection”, and they would be reviewed in three weeks “to ensure they are working effectively”.

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