Spanish foreign minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya. Picture: SUSANA VERA/ REUTERS
Spanish foreign minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya. Picture: SUSANA VERA/ REUTERS

Madrid/London — Spain is safe for tourists and Spaniards, the government insisted on Sunday after Britain abruptly imposed a two-week coronavirus quarantine on travellers returning from there, a decision that filled holidaymakers with dismay.

The Madrid government is also trying to persuade Britain to exclude the Balearic and Canary Islands from the quarantine measure, foreign minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya said.

She added that the prevalence of the virus in those destinations is much lower than in the UK.

“Spain is safe — it is safe for Spaniards, it is safe for tourists,” Gonzalez Laya told reporters.

In 2019, Britons made up more than a fifth of foreign visitors to Spain, which relies heavily on tourism revenues.

The quarantine, coming just as the Spanish tourism sector emerges from months of lockdowns and travel restrictions, upset the plans of many people either on holiday or planning to take one and caused more disruption for airlines and tour companies.

“It ruins plans for everybody,” Emily Harrison, from Essex, said as she prepared to fly back home from Madrid’s Barajas Airport and faced two weeks of self-isolation. “Everyone is now panicking.”

UK foreign minister Dominic Raab called the measure a “real-time response” to a jump in coronavirus cases in Spain.

“We can’t make apologies … we must be able to take swift, decisive action,” he said on Sky News.

The government announced it was taking Spain off a safe-travel list late on Saturday and the move took effect just hours later, leaving travellers with no time to dodge it or plan ahead.

It also advised against all but essential travel to mainland Spain, leaving the islands out of the advice but including them in the quarantine measure.

The opposition Labour Party’s health policy chief, Jonathan Ashworth, slammed Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government for its “frankly shambolic” handling of the measure.

TUI, Europe’s biggest holiday company, said it will cancel all holidays to mainland Spain up to August 9, while maintaining flights to the Balearic and Canary Islands.

Spain has experienced rising Covid-19 cases in the last few weeks, prompting most regions to impose rules for masks to be worn everywhere and, in several areas including Barcelona, calls for people to stay at home.

As most new cases have been concentrated in the northeastern region of Catalonia and neighbouring regions, much of the criticism focused on the fact that the quarantine also applies to other areas, which have been spared the brunt of the pandemic.

More disruption

“This is ridiculous. There are almost no cases here and there’s a far higher chance of contracting it when I get back to Britain,” said John Snelling, from Stratford-upon-Avon, who was on holiday in Menorca.

The measure upset the plans of many people either on holiday or planning to take one, hit hard at the Spanish tourism sector just as it emerges from months of lockdowns and travel restrictions, and caused more disruption for airlines and tour companies.

Britain has been the hardest-hit country in Europe by the pandemic. Spain was also badly affected, with more than 290,000 cases and over 28,000 deaths. It imposed very strict lockdown measures, gradually easing them earlier in the summer.

Norway last week reimposed a 10-day quarantine requirement for people arriving from Spain, while France advised people not to travel to Catalonia.

But a collapse of tourism from Britain would have a far bigger effect on the economy in Spain, where tourism accounts for 12% of GDP. Britons made up the largest group by nationality of foreign visitors.

“This decision is an absolute disaster for the recovery, there’s no other way to see this,” Angel Tavares, head of European economics at Oxford Economics consulting, said on Twitter, referring to the quarantine measure.

Antonio Perez, mayor of the Mediterranean resort of Benidorm that is hugely dependent on British tourists, said it is a “tough blow”.

Meanwhile, a new investigation paints a grimmer picture for Spain than initially presented.

Spain’s Covid-19 death toll could be nearly 60% higher than the official figure of 28,432, according to an investigation by El País newspaper published on Sunday.

The country’s official death toll includes only people who were formally diagnosed with the novel coronavirus, not suspected cases who were not tested. Due to a lack of widespread testing, particularly in the early stages of the outbreak, the official count could underestimate the virus’s toll, like in many other countries.

By counting regional statistics of all suspected and confirmed fatalities from the virus, El País reached a total of 44,868 deaths.

If accurate, that would make Spain’s outbreak the second-deadliest in Europe after Britain’s.

Spain’s health ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The El País figure is about in line with figures from the National Epidemiology Centre and National Statistics Centre (INE), which register excess mortality by comparing deaths across the country with historical averages.

In June, the INE reported 43,945 more deaths in the first 21 weeks of 2020 than in the same period of 2019, though it could not say how many could be attributed to the pandemic.


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