Ministers have been accused of being too slow to act after it was disclosed new coronavirus quarantine hotels will not come into force until mid-February.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said that, from February 15, travellers returning to the UK from “red list” countries will have to quarantine in a government-approved facility for 10 days.
The Government originally announced last week it would be tightening the rules following the emergence of mutant new strains of the virus in South Africa and Brazil.
Labour said it was “beyond comprehension” that it was taking so long to get the scheme up and running.
Meanwhile NHS leaders have warned the service remains at “full stretch”, despite a declaration by the chief medical officer for England Professor Chris Whitty that the current wave of the pandemic was “past its peak”.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents trusts in England, said numbers in intensive care were only coming down “very slowly” while staff were “deeply exhausted” after working for weeks at “fever pitch”.
4/5 The NHS has barely crested the peak and it's still at an extremely high altitude under huge pressure. The descent down the mountain has only just started and we don't know how steep the down slope will be. We also know that the descent will likely take months, not days/weeks.
— Chris Hopson (@ChrisCEOHopson) February 4, 2021
The DHSC said it was working “at pace” to ensure designated quarantine hotels would be ready for British nationals returning from high-risk countries on the UK travel ban list from the middle of the month.
Officials said a commercial specification was issued on Thursday evening to hotels near air and sea ports asking for proposals on how they can support the delivery of quarantine facilities ahead of formal contracts being awarded.
The Daily Telegraph reported that officials were seeking to reserve 28,000 hotel rooms over the course of the scheme.
The paper said that it had seen documents showing that officials estimate 1,425 passengers will need to be accommodated each day, mostly near Heathrow.
For Labour, shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said the Government was again doing “too little, too late”.
“It is beyond comprehension that these measures won’t even start until February 15,” he said.
“We are in a race against time to protect our borders against new Covid strains.
“Yet hotel quarantine will come in to force more than 50 days after the South African strain was discovered.
“Even when these measures eventually begin, they will not go anywhere near far enough to be effective in preventing further variants.”
The announcement of a start date follows days of apparent confusion within Whitehall over how the scheme would be implemented.
When it first was announced on January 27, Home Secretary Priti Patel said further details would be set out later that week.
Then, at a No 10 press conference on Wednesday, Boris Johnson said Health Secretary Matt Hancock would be making an announcement the next day, only to be corrected by Downing Street which said no statement was planned.
A DHSC spokesman said they had been in discussions with representatives of the aviation, maritime, hotel and hospitality industries, as well as counterparts in Australia and New Zealand which already have similar schemes.
“We are now working at pace to secure the facilities we need to roll out managed quarantine for British nationals returning home from the most high risk countries,” the spokesman said.
“In the face of new variants, it is important that the Government continues to take the necessary steps to protect people and save lives.”
Earlier, Mr Hopson called for a “cautious, evidence-based” approach to any relaxation of lockdown restrictions in England, saying the social-distancing rules had been eased too early last year.
He said there were still 26,000 Covid-19 patients in hospital, 40% more than the peak last April, while the NHS was running at 170% of last year’s intensive care unit (ICU) capacity.
In a series of tweets, he said a cold snap was forecast next week which would increase the pressure on services.
“So, if we want to use mountain analogies (peaks etc) the NHS has barely crested the peak and it’s still at an extremely high altitude under huge pressure,” he said.
“The descent down the mountain has only just started and we don’t know how steep the down slope will be.”
His comments were echoed by former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who said ministers should listen “very carefully” to the scientific advice.
“I think we have to recognise that the game has changed massively over Christmas with these new variants, and that we mustn’t make the mistake that we made last year of thinking that we’re not going to have another resurgence of the virus,” he told the Guardian.
The warnings came as Mr Johnson is coming under intense pressure from some Tory MPs to bring forward the lifting of lockdown restrictions as cases fall and the vaccine rollout continues.
Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, said the Government was in danger of falling out of step with public opinion if it delays the opening of schools in England to March 8 as planned.
“It’s quite possible that the current very steep decline in infections will continue,” he told Times Radio.
“And if it continues at that rate over the coming weeks, I think the danger is the Government could find itself behind the curve where the public are saying ‘Well come on, not a lot of people are getting ill and there are very serious consequences for my children and for our lives’.”