05 Nov 2020

COVID-19 (coronavirus): general advice for travellers

Advice for travellers from the UK on travel abroad and reducing spread of respiratory viruses during the COVID-19 outbreak COVID-19 (coronavirus): general advice for travellers
  • This updates the news item of 20 October 2020

The UK Government has introduced national restrictions in England to help control the spread of COVID-19; there is different guidance in ScotlandWales and Northern Ireland. Travellers must follow the rules that apply to them; these may include restrictions on international travel except in limited circumstances such as work or education.   

The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) provides guidance on COVID and non-COVID risks overseas. The FCDO currently advises against all but essential travel to many countries and territories on the basis of COVID risks. Travellers should check the travel advice for their destination. 

Travel disruption is possible worldwide as national control measures such as border closures, movement restrictions or quarantine rules may be introduced with limited notice [1]. Travellers should continue to monitor the GOV.UK travel advice and check the UK FCDO website for country specific information regularly, as the information may change. Travellers should also be prepared to stay overseas longer than planned. 

People at higher risk from COVID-19 (particularly those who are clinically extremely vulnerable, or clinically vulnerable) [2], are at greater risk of severe illness and should continue to be vigilant regarding social distancing and hand washing. Those who are in this group should check the advice in the UK nation they live in: EnglandScotlandWales or Northern Ireland.

Current evidence also shows that there is a higher risk of infection and of severe disease in Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups in the UK, but reasons for this are currently not clear [3].

Advice for travellers

Preparations before travelling internationally

When planning to travel internationally, you should consider the following guidance to prepare for your trip and reduce your risk of exposure to COVID-19:

COVID-19 testing before travel

  • Some countries may require proof of recent COVID-19 testing for entry (or require you to take one or more tests when you arrive in the country). To be clear what type of test is required, check the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) foreign travel advice; (see the summary, health and entry requirements sections) and contact the UK-based embassy of the country you're travelling to if you need more information.
  • You cannot use the NHS test and trace service to get a test for international travel purposes.
  • Testing before you leave the UK for international travel is only available as a private service with private providers e.g. some private GP services, travel clinics or other private testing services. If you are travelling for work purposes, you should discuss options for testing with your employer.
  • When arranging a test, you should check the requirements of the country you are travelling to and consider the time it will take to process your test and get your result. A charge is usually made for testing and any paperwork issued privately (e.g. COVID-19 fitness to fly or ‘COVID-19 free certificate’).
  • You should ensure that testing is carried out by a laboratory accredited by the United Kingdom Accredited Service (UKAS).
  • The type of test that is usually required is a swab PCR test (a home test kit may be supplied). This test can pick up the genetic material of the virus on the swab and can tell you if you had COVID-19 infection at the time the swab was taken.

Air travel

The air quality on board aircraft is carefully controlled, changed very frequently and passed through filters efficient at removing viruses; research has shown that there is little risk of any communicable disease being transmitted on board an aircraft [6]. IATA research published October 2020 indicates that so far, only a small number of cases (44) have been associated with a flight journey (inclusive of confirmed, probable and potential cases) during which time 1.2 billion passengers travelled [7]. However, there is definitive evidence of in-flight transmission of COVID-19 [8], the addition of mask-wearing on a flight appears to add an extra layer of protection [9].

If you are planning air travel, the following advice should be considered:

  • To reduce the risk of passing on infection, you should not travel on an aircraft if you are unwell. Exit screening may be implemented and you may be denied boarding if you have symptoms of COVID-19.
  • You should continue to take good hygiene measures (see below) and use the designated toilet for your area of the aircraft, washing your hands before you leave the toilet.
  • Avoid moving from your seat unnecessarily but do continue to exercise your legs (flex and extend the ankles) as much as possible to encourage blood flow from the lower legs.
  • If you are unwell on the flight, please stay in your seat and follow any instructions provided during the flight, contacting the air crew as soon as possible.

General advice for preventing the spread of respiratory viruses

  • Wash your hands often with soap and running water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser that contains at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available. This is particularly important after taking public transport or being in a public space.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • If you feel unwell, stay at home, do not travel or attend work/school.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in a bin and wash hands with soap and water.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces in the home and work environment.
  • If you are unwell with any of the following: a high temperature, new continuous cough or a loss of, or change in, your normal sense of taste or smell (anosmia), you should self-isolate and arrange to have a test, (seek local guidance if you are overseas).

Advice if you have contact with a COVID-19 case while abroad

If you have been in contact with a known COVID-19 case, follow relevant public health advice (if available), and speak to your healthcare provider or travel insurance company as soon as possible for further guidance. If you are required to quarantine or self-isolate by local authorities, you should expect to do so in the country you are in.

Advice if you become unwell abroad

If you develop symptoms of new continuous cough, high temperature or a loss of, or change in, your normal sense of taste or smell (anosmia) while abroad or during travel, you should immediately:

  • Stay indoors and avoid contact with other people, as you would with the flu.
  • Call your health provider and/or insurance company to discuss what you should do. Remember that if you have been in a malaria affected area in the last year, it is important to exclude malaria as a cause of high temperature (blood test required).
  • Follow local public health guidance if available.
  • If you become unwell at an airport, bus or train station before or during a long trip, seek medical advice and do not start or continue your journey.
  • If you test positive for COVID-19 while abroad you will need to follow local public health advice regarding self-isolation. You should expect to self-isolate in the country you are in, so you may need to stay longer than planned. Current Public Health England guidance states you should complete a 10 day self-isolation (from when your symptoms started). If you still have a high temperature after 10 days, you should continue to self-isolate and seek medical advice. Plan ahead for any possible delays to your return home.
  • Once you have fully recovered, check with your health provider if you are fit to travel, before any onward travel.

Advice after travel

From 8 June 2020, new quarantine rules were applied to those entering or returning to the UK. All travellers need to provide their journey and contact details to border health authorities.

Self-isolation will be required for 14 days except in limited situations. Travellers do not have to self-isolate if arriving from a country or territory on the ‘travel corridor’ list.

Those who develop COVID-19 symptoms must self-isolate and arrange to have a test.

Advice for health professionals

During the current COVID-19 pandemic, many individuals may present with a fever. In the returned traveller, some will have other infections including Plasmodium falciparum malaria, which can be fatal if not diagnosed and treated. All individuals being assessed for possible COVID-19 must be asked if they have travelled abroad in the last six months. If they visited a country where malaria occurs, they must have a blood test result for malaria on the same day [10].


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