British travellers in South Africa face 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 re-book flights and extend their stays around the limited room availability.
One woman has been told there are no rooms free until 22 December and other families who have found themselves stranded have described the sudden change of rules and quarantine hotel booking system as “chaotic” and “not fit for purpose”.
They accuse the government of being totally unprepared to support those caught out by the changes.
Labour’s shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper called on the government to address the situation urgently.
South Africa and nine other countries in southern Africa were re-added to the travel red list this week to try and tackle the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid19.
Direct flights from South Africa were initially banned a week ago.
Travellers arriving from red list countries have to isolate in designated quarantine hotels for 10 days at their own expense.
But many are now saying they cannot get a booking on the day their flights are due.
Passengers can be fined £4000 for arriving in the UK from a red list country without a quarantine hotel booking already in place.
“It’s been awful, just awful” says Teresa Martin who is from South Africa originally and travelled out to spend time with her elderly mother who she has not seen for two years.
She was supposed to return on 8 December but her husband, who called the booking management company on her behalf from the UK, has now been told there is no availability until 22 December.
It will mean she would have to spend Christmas and New Year in a quarantine hotel.
“The trip itself has been emotional already” she said.
“This turbulence of the booking and the flight changing and then arranging, finding out where you get your PCR tests and driving 10 miles to go and book it. It takes its toll.”
She has the added extra worry that if she has to stay in South Africa that long she may run out of medication she takes for rheumatoid arthritis.
On top of the stress and emotion families are also facing huge bills.
A 10-day stay in a quarantine hotel costs £2,285 for one adult in one room, with an extra £1,430 per adult and £325 per child aged 5-11 in the same room.
Many are also having to pay to rearrange flights to try and match with the days where there is hotel availability, plus pay for extended hotel days in South Africa.
That is the situation faced by Hannah Pickersgill and her family, who travelled to Cape Town for a family wedding with her husband, two children, mother and brother.
She was due to fly back on 4 December but could only get a hotel from 6 December. She has then struggled to rearrange her flights for that date due to the high demand.
“It means my children won’t go back to school now until January, my son is getting quite distressed about it,” she said.
“It’s made my mum very ill. She’s extremely stressed. And we’ve wasted a lot of time and money trying to sort it out.
“I can’t really highlight enough… the incompetence of not having enough hotel rooms for travellers coming back.”
She and others have also criticised Corporate Travel Management (CTM) the private company contracted to manage hotel bookings, with many saying they have struggled to get through on the phone.
Nic Bowler and his family are facing similar challenges. They have already had to move their flights back a week but they still have not secured any quarantine accommodation and do not know if they will be out in time for Christmas.
“I fully understand it’s a pandemic, I fully understand that things change,” he said.
“But the process that the government has prescribed is just not fit for purpose, and it is stressful because it really is eating into family time.”
While there are in excess of 4,000 quarantine rooms available, the system is not as large as it was during the summer when more countries were on the red list.
The Arora Hotel group at that time provided around 2,500 rooms in eight different hotels but is currently only offering around 1,500 rooms across three hotels.
Founder and chairman Surinder Arora said that it took a huge effort from his staff to get these hotels prepared and ready in just a few days following the sudden announcement last week.
“I think if you were to ask one of the big brands or one of the larger companies, they’d say to you we need at least a week or two to mobilise,” he said.
Turning a hotel around involves things like getting specialist cleaning equipment in, clearing existing bookings and massively ramping up room service capabilities.
“A lot of planning goes into it and you know, especially in the current climate when you can’t even get all your deliveries in on time, whether it be laundry, whether it be food, staffing, all those are big issues,” Mr Arora said.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are rapidly expanding hotel capacity in light of 10 counties being added to the red list, and there will be significant increases to capacity from Monday onwards.”
CTM said in a statement: “CTM is working closely with the 10 countries 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 are also resulting in a high number of change requests from travellers returning to the UK.
“Since the recent changes to the red list implemented to slow the spread of the new Omicron variant, over 2,800 travellers have successfully booked managed quarantine.
“CTM is working closely with the Department of Health and Social Care and all relevant parties in the UK Managed Quarantine programme to ensure transfers, accommodation, testing and security are increased in line with capacity as quickly as possible.”
Labour’s Yvette Cooper said: “The government needs to sort this urgently.
“They should not be in such a chaotic situation 18 months into this pandemic when they have known all along they needed rapid contingency plans to deal with new waves of the virus or new variants.”