How the UK’s new quarantine rules are impacting travel to Spain

The Lunt family from Bath, in western England, had planned to visit Spain this summer, but like so many British holidaymakers have had their plans upended by the coronavirus pandemic.

How the UK's new quarantine rules are impacting travel to Spain
A waiter waits for customers at a restaurant near Playa de Figueretas in Ibiza on July 30, 2020. Photo: JAIME REINA / AFP

The family-of-five, who had booked two weeks on the Balearic island of Majorca next month, have now decided to swap the azure waters of the Mediterranean for the cooler currents of the North Atlantic and a holiday in the southwest English county Cornwall.

The family were worried they might test positive for the virus on arrival in Spain and have to spend their holiday in self-isolation.

READ: The measures being taken in Spain to keep tourists safe

“We were worried about having our temperature taken at the airport and potentially having to quarantine for two weeks,” Rosie Lunt, mother to a boy and two girls aged between five and nine, told AFP.

But their change of plans proved to be a good decision, since they would have faced quarantine anyway when they returned to Britain, thanks to new rules imposed this weekend by the UK government.

Quarantine spat

The hastily-imposed new regulations, announced Saturday, followed a spike in virus cases in mainland Spain but drew criticism from the travel sector and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez who insisted his country was safe for travellers.

In addition to the minor diplomatic fallout, the decision has again exposed the fragility of the tourist market and the plight of people and places who rely on it.

Spain is particularly hard-hit with the Exceltur tourism association estimating it could wipe out almost 9 billion euros of revenue in August and September alone.

The damage goes both ways. British tour operators, who organise millions of summer visits to Spain each year, face “major financial implications”, said travel trade association ABTA.

The UK tourists who throng Spanish resorts each year — partying in Ibiza, sunbathing on the Costa Brava and eating full English breakfasts in the Costa del Sol — have all but vanished. Spain is the most popular destination for British tourists, ahead of France and the US.

More than 18 million of them visited Spain in each of the last three years, almost a quarter of the country's total visitors, according to market researchers Euromonitor.

Within days of the quarantine rollout, Britain's biggest tour operator TUI said it was scrapping flights to Spain until early August, and on Thursday announced it was cutting 166 shops in Britain and Ireland.

On Friday, low-cost airline Jet2 announced it was cancelling flights to islands including Gran Canaria and Menorca until August 9 and asked some tourists to end their Spanish holidays early, saying it was “responding to a very fast-moving situation”.

Travel trade disaster 

It seems unlikely that Spain will remain the only destination to be affected by the new quarantine rules. UK ministers are said to be watching other countries closely, including Croatia and Belgium.

The TSSA union, which represents staff in UK travel agencies, told AFP that any decision to expand the quarantine “would be a disaster for the travel trade, a real body blow for the industry”.

“Nobody wants a repeat of the collapse of Thomas Cook which cost the taxpayer over £158 million,” said TSSA leader, Manuel Cortes.

British travel group Thomas Cook went bust in 2019, leaving hundreds of thousands of holidaymakers stranded abroad. So far, UK government ministers have urged people to continue booking holidays but to be “aware of the risk”.

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Spain rules out EU’s advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 

Spain’s Health Ministry said Thursday there will be no mandatory vaccination in the country following the European Commission’s advice to Member States to “think about it” and Germany’s announcement that it will make vaccines compulsory in February.

Spain rules out EU's advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 
A Spanish man being vaccinated poses with a custom-made T-shirt showing Spain's chief epidimiologist Fernando Simón striking a 'Dirty Harry/Clint Eastwood' pose over the words "What part of keep a two-metre distance don't you understand?' Photo: José Jordan

Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias on Thursday told journalists Covid-19 vaccines will continue to be voluntary in Spain given the “very high awareness of the population” with regard to the benefits of vaccination.

This follows the words of European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday, urging Member States to “think about mandatory vaccination” as more cases of the Omicron variant are detected across Europe. 

READ ALSO: Is Spain proving facts rather than force can convince the unvaccinated?

“I can understand that countries with low vaccine coverage are contemplating this and that Von der Leyen is considering opening up a debate, but in our country the situation is absolutely different,” Darias said at the press conference following her meeting with Spain’s Interterritorial Health Council.

According to the national health minister,  this was also “the general belief” of regional health leaders of each of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities she had just been in discussion with over Christmas Covid measures. 

READ MORE: Spain rules out new restrictions against Omicron variant

Almost 80 percent of Spain’s total population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, a figure which is around 10 percent higher if looking at those who are eligible for the vaccine (over 12s). 

It has the highest vaccination rate among Europe’s most populous countries.

Germany announced tough new restrictions on Thursday in a bid to contain its fourth wave of Covid-19 aimed largely at the country’s unvaccinated people, with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking in favour of compulsory vaccinations, which the German parliament is due to vote on soon.

Austria has also already said it will make Covid-19 vaccines compulsory next February, Belgium is also considering it and Greece on Tuesday said it will make vaccination obligatory for those over 60.

But for Spain, strict Covid-19 vaccination rules have never been on the table, having said from the start that getting the Covid-19 jabs was voluntary. 

There’s also a huge legal implication to imposing such a rule which Spanish courts are unlikely to look on favourably. 

Stricter Covid restrictions and the country’s two states of alarm, the first resulting in a full national lockdown from March to May 2020, have both been deemed unconstitutional by Spain’s Constitutional Court. 

READ ALSO: Could Spain lock down its unvaccinated or make Covid vaccines compulsory?

The Covid-19 health pass to access indoor public spaces was also until recently consistently rejected by regional high courts for breaching fundamental rights, although judges have changed their stance favouring this Covid certificate over old Covid-19 restrictions that affect the whole population.

MAP: Which regions in Spain now require a Covid health pass for daily affairs?

“In Spain what we have to do is to continue vaccinating as we have done until now” Darias added. 

“Spaniards understand that vaccines are not only a right, they are an obligation because we protect others with them”.

What Spanish health authorities are still considering is whether to vaccinate their 5 to 11 year olds after the go-ahead from the European Medicines Agency, with regions such as Madrid claiming they will start vaccinating their young children in December despite there being no official confirmation from Spain’s Vaccine Committee yet.

READ MORE: Will Spain soon vaccinate its children under 12?

Spain’s infection rate continues to rise day by day, jumping 17 points up to 234 cases per 100,000 people on Thursday. There are now also five confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in the country, one through community transmission.

Hospital bed occupancy with Covid patients has also risen slightly nationwide to 3.3 percent, as has ICU Covid occupancy which now stands at 8.4 percent, but the Spanish government insists these figures are “almost three times lower” than during previous waves of the coronavirus pandemic.