Travellers have been released from quarantine hotels after the government scrapped the UK’s red list.
Some were told they could leave from 4pm, 12 hours after the requirement to self-isolate in a hotel was dropped for new arrivals.
Other travellers left their accommodation before then, it has been reported.
The decision to scrap the travel red list, and remove the 11 African countries which were on it, came as the system became “less effective in slowing the incursion” of the new Omicron coronavirus variant.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said released travellers “will get a refund for the portion of the space that they booked that they have not used”.
However, only travellers who test negative for COVID-19 will be allowed to leave and people with a positive result – or those who are not fully vaccinated and are in contact with someone with a positive result – must remain in quarantine.
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Initial concern over the new variant led the government to place 11 nations, including South Africa, Nigeria and Zambia, on the red list, which meant people arriving from there had to spend 11 nights in a quarantine hotel at a cost of £2,285 for single travellers.
However, now travellers entering the UK must take a pre-departure test and self-isolate until they receive a negative result from a post-arrival test.
The change comes as the UK reports its highest daily number of positive COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, at 78,610.
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A further 4,671 cases of the Omicron variant have been confirmed – bringing the total to 10,017.
Jonathan Mogford, who is responsible for the managed quarantine service at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), told the Commons Transport Committee on Wednesday that there have been “unprecedentedly high rates” of positive coronavirus cases among red list travellers.
He said latest figures suggest “nearly 5% of people in the hotels are positive”.
There have been “roughly 5,000 guests through in this round of red listing”, he said, which indicates around 250 of those people have tested positive.
UKHSA chief executive Dr Jenny Harries said travel restrictions have “a time and place” in protecting public health.
She told MPs that the red list was deployed “as a delaying tactic”, giving the UK “time to prepare” for the Omicron variant.
But now that the strain’s rate of growth in the UK is “significant”, it is “really important” that country-specific restrictions are lifted, Dr Harries said.