The “hotel quarantine” plan will finally come into force on 15 February, amid rising criticism of government delays and bungling.
Anyone returning to the UK from a country on the banned “red list” will be required to pay to isolate in government-supervised accommodation for 10 days.
However, the announcement did not contain any information about how passengers will book into their designated hotels, with “further details” to be set out next week.
Hotels near ports and airports have been “asked for proposals” on how they can join the scheme “ahead of formal contracts being awarded”, the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) said.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, will lead “cross-government efforts to deliver mandatory quarantine and enhanced testing” to tackle the threat from new variants of Covid-19.
The announcement appeared to have been rushed out after stinging criticism from Rob Paterson, the boss of the Best Western chain, who said hotels were still “in the dark” about what was planned.
It is three weeks since it was first revealed that hotels were being lined-up for quarantining passengers – from high-risk areas only, it later emerged – and eight days since the plan was confirmed.
Labour said it was “beyond comprehension that these measures won’t even start until 15 February” and repeated its calls for all arriving passengers to be quarantined.
Instead, the crackdown will apply to only the 33 “red list” countries – mainly in southern Africa and South America – from which travel is already banned.
That means only Britons returning to the UK will be affected, and required to pay an estimated £1,500 or more to stay in a room for 10 days.
“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,” said Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow home secretary.
“Even when these measures eventually begin, they will not go nowhere near far enough to be effective in preventing further variants. As ever with this government, it is too little, too late.
But a DHSC spokesperson said: “Throughout the pandemic, the government has put in place proportionate measures, informed by the advice of scientists, and that has led to some of the toughest border regimes in the world.
“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, and are rightly engaging with representatives from the hospitality, maritime and aviation industry, and learning from our friends around the world.”
The last point is a reference to talks Mr Hancock held with his counterpart in Australia – which has among the world’s toughest quarantine policies – with his staff also due to receive tips from officials in New Zealand.