LONDON/BARCELONA (Reuters) - Britain abruptly imposed a two-week quarantine on all travellers arriving from Spain after a surge of coronavirus cases, a dramatic and sudden reversal on Saturday to the opening of the European continent to tourism after months of lockdown.
The quarantine requirement takes effect from midnight (2300 GMT on Saturday), making it almost impossible for travellers to avoid it by rushing home.
The British foreign ministry also advised against all but essential travel to mainland Spain, a move likely to prompt tour operators to cancel package holidays and trigger claims against insurers.
Europe’s biggest travel company TUI said it was cancelling all departures on Sunday to Spain from the United Kingdom, and was urgently reviewing future flights.
“We’re incredibly disappointed that we didn’t get more notice of this announcement, or that this decision wasn’t made yesterday, as many Brits travel on holiday at the weekend,” said TUI’s UK managing director, Andrew Flintham.
EasyJet and British Airways said they did not plan to cancel flights over the coming days.
Spain’s Canary and Balearic Islands are not covered by the advice to avoid travel to the mainland, but holidaymakers returning to Britain from the islands will still be subject to quarantine on return.
Britain’s government urged employers to be “understanding” towards staff who are unable to return to work for two weeks after coming back from holiday.
Transport minister Grant Shapps himself will be subject to quarantine, after a spokesman confirmed that he is currently on holiday in Spain.
The British move followed steps this week by other European countries. On Friday Norway said it would re-impose a 10-day quarantine requirement for people arriving from Spain, while France advised people not to travel to Spain’s northeastern region of Catalonia.
But the total collapse of tourism from Britain would have far more impact. Britons made up more than 20% of foreign visitors to Spain last year, the largest group by nationality. Tourism normally accounts for 12% of Spain’s economy.
Spain had been on a list of countries that the British government had said were safe for travellers to visit - meaning tourists returning home would not have to go into quarantine.
The announcement of such lists just weeks ago had allowed Europe’s tourism sector to begin to revive after the near total shut-down prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Responding to the British measures, Spain said on Saturday it was a safe country with localised, isolated and controlled outbreaks of the coronavirus.
A Spanish Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Spain “respects decisions of the United Kingdom” and was in touch with the authorities there.
The British move will affect not just Spain’s tourism sector but airlines and travel companies struggling to get back to business.
Britain’s opposition Labour Party said the news was “deeply concerning” and called for support for British people affected.
Antonio Perez, the mayor of Benidorm, a resort on Spain’s Costa Blanca that is hugely dependent on British tourists, called the move “another tough blow”.
“We have suffered a lot this year and then this happened. We thought that the British were going to come back but this makes things harder for now,” he said.
Spain was one of the worst hit countries in Europe by the pandemic, with more than 290,000 cases and over 28,000 deaths. It imposed very strict lockdown measures to contain the spread, gradually easing them earlier this summer.
But the last few weeks saw a surge of cases, forcing local lockdowns to be reimposed in some areas.
On Friday Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya told CNN that like many countries around the world that have managed to control the disease, Spain “has outbreaks but the governments — both national and regional — are working to isolate cases as soon as they appear”.
The Catalonia region reported 1,493 new coronavirus cases and three deaths on Saturday. The regional government has urged residents of Barcelona to stay at home, and ordered all discos to shut from Saturday for the next 15 days.
Britain itself has been the worst hit country in Europe by the pandemic, with more than 328,000 cases and an official death toll of more than 45,600.
Reporting by David Milliken; Additional reporting by Graham Keeley in Barcelona; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Frances Kerry and Daniel Wallis