Coronavirus: UK could impose more 'handbrake restrictions' on arrivals beyond Spain

·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA</span>
Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA

Holidaymakers have been warned the government could impose “handbrake restrictions” on more countries beyond Spain in order to stop the spread of coronavirus – with travellers unlikely to be given much warning if further quarantine measures need to be enforced.

The restrictions on travellers returning from Spain after the measures were announced overnight threw summer holiday plans into disarray for British tourists, and will raise fears among those travelling to other European countries that they could face a similar turnaround at a moment’s notice.

Related: Why are travellers to the UK from Spain being asked to quarantine?

Government sources said it was prepared to act quickly to impose the new rules, if needed, on other nations – but said there were no plans for “air bridges” to be revoked with other European countries.

The snap decision to change advice for travellers has been criticised by Labour, who said the short notice would give tourists “a sense of panic and loss of control”. The party has called for the government to aid employees who must now tell their employers that they need to isolate, warning people could face financial hardship.

Among those currently in Spain are at least two government ministers, including the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, whose department imposed the new restrictions in a blow to its “air bridges” scheme which had advised tourists they could travel safely to a number of European countries.

Paul Scully, minister for London and small business, posted a picture on Instagram of himself on holiday in Playa Dorada, Lanzarote, with the caption: “Best turn to gin. I’ll still be able to work. Just no shopping or running I guess quarantine.”

Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, said the government had to take “swift, decisive action” when the data from Spain showed a surge in infections right across the country.

“Otherwise, we risk reinfection into the UK, potentially a second wave here and then another lockdown,” he said. “So yes, I understand it is disruptive for those going through this who are in Spain or have been considering going, but we must though be able to take swift, decisive action to protect the UK.”

Raab said the government could not risk giving “vague advice” to holidaymakers. “There is a cutoff with changes in rules and advice we give, so I appreciate that that’s difficult and it can be disruptive.

“But it would be far worse to either muddy the waters or to hold back and delay from taking the measures when we need to take them. The reason this was taken at reasonably short notice was the spike in Spain that we’ve responded to … so it was the real-time response.”

Ibiza Town on 11 July. British tourists returned to Spain and the Balearic Islands when travel restrictions were relaxed earlier this month.
Ibiza Town on 11 July. British tourists returned to Spain and the Balearic Islands when travel restrictions were relaxed earlier this month. Photograph: Tom Pilgrim/PA

The government’s caution is backed up by genetic analysis of coronavirus circulating in the UK. One reason scientists advising ministers failed to appreciate the extent of Britain’s epidemic back in March was that thousands of cases arrived unnoticed from Europe, with more than a third coming from Spain, home to one of the continent’s worst Covid-19 outbreaks.

A Whitehall source said travellers should understand when they made holiday plans that advice was subject to swift change at little notice. “There is a handbrake mechanism to immediately change advice … when the risk changes you have to act very quickly or you risk many more cases coming back to the UK and people unknowingly passing it on,” the source said.

The Joint Biosecurity Centre and Public Health England monitor a number of different factors to determine a country’s quarantine status, including the number of cases in European countries and the trajectory of cases rising – as well as the geographic prevalence of the spread within the country. It is understood the latest data does not place any other country at immediate risk.

The shadow home secretary, Labour’s Nick Thomas-Symonds, called the blanket quarantine “a blunt tool” and said that a ramped-up track and trace system would be far preferable.

“The government’s policy regarding travel restrictions has lacked grip and coherence from the outset,” he said. “This latest decision-making process regarding Spain and the short notice for travellers has created a sense of panic and loss of control.

“The government should have proper contingency plans to support people coming home where there is no guarantee their employers will allow them 14 days of work flexibility. And it is high time that a sector-specific deal for aviation is introduced as quarantine measures continue to affect the travel industry.”

Shapps held talks with airlines and the UK’s ambassador to Spain via video link on Sunday afternoon, in order to prepare the ground for travellers to return from Spain, though it is understood the government believes many will choose to continue their holidays.

Spanish authorities have insisted the country remains a safe destination for tourists after the de-facto travel ban took many in Spain and the UK by surprise. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office advised against all non-essential travel to mainland Spain from Saturday, which will have major travel insurance implications for people forced to scrap their plans.

“Spain is a safe country,” the Spanish foreign minister, Arancha González Laya, said on Sunday. “Like any other country around the world that has managed to control Covid, Spain is working to isolate cases as soon as they appear, trace the contacts, and make sure we treat them and separate them so that the rest of the country can get on with their lives and the economy can continue, and that tourists can continue to enjoy Spain.”

González Laya said the Spanish government would keep working with other European governments to “reassure them and to send a message of confidence”.

She said the government was focused on ensuring that the Balearic and Canary islands remained excluded from the UK’s self-quarantine requirements, adding: “The epidemiological case situation there is far below that of the UK.” A Downing Street source said there was no plan to exclude the Spanish islands from the advice.

On Friday, Spain’s health ministry recorded 922 new Covid-19 cases – slightly down from 971 over the previous 24 hours. González Laya said the three largest outbreaks – in Barcelona, Zaragoza and Lleida – were under control, and that regional governments were following the early detection protocol agreed with the central government.

Tourists travelling with Tui in Mallorca in June. Tui has now cancelled holidays to Spain for its British customers up to 9 August.
Tourists travelling with Tui in Mallorca in June. Tui has now cancelled holidays to Spain for its British customers up to 9 August. Photograph: Jaime Reina/AFP/Getty Images

Tui, Europe’s biggest holiday company, said on Sunday it had decided to cancel all Britons’ holidays to mainland Spain up to and including Sunday 9 August after the UK’s decision to impose a two-week quarantine on those returning from the country.

“Tui UK have taken the decision to cancel all holidays to mainland Spain up to and including Sunday 9 August 2020,” the company said in a statement.

“We know how much our customers look forward to their holiday abroad and some will be able to accommodate the new quarantine restrictions. Therefore all those that wish to travel to the Balearic Islands and Canary Islands will be able to travel as planned from Monday 27 July.”

British Airways and easyJet have strongly criticised the UK government’s decision, but have said they will continue to operate flights despite the quarantine rules.

BA said the decision had thrown thousands of Britons’ travel plans into chaos and described it as “yet another blow for British holidaymakers”.