‚Spain is a safe country‘: Did the UK really need to impose blanket quarantine on travellers?

The UK government’s decision to remove Spain from a „safe“ travel list, meaning returning holidaymakers face two-weeks in self-isolation has caused anger and confusion in Spain where the tourism industry is already struggling.

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“This decision is an absolute disaster for the recovery, there’s no other way to see this,” Angel Talavera, head of European Economics at Oxford Economics consulting, said on Twitter, referring to the British government’s snap decision on Saturday. 

Esta decisión es un absoluto desastre para la recuperación, no hay otra manera de verlo. Por no hablar de todos los que queremos volver a casa en algún momento. https://t.co/6jkntUmlIC— Ángel Talavera (@atalaveraEcon) July 25, 2020

The government announced that from 11pm on Saturday anyone travelling from Spain, including returning holidaymakers, would have to self-isolate for two weeks.

That meant returning holidaymakers faced being unable to go back to work or see family members on their return.

London also advised against non-essential travel to mainland Spain.

The UK government insists the move was motivated by the need to prioritize public health. 

„We have taken this decision to limit any potential spread to the UK. We’ve always been clear that we would act immediately to remove a country where necessary,“ a spokesman from the Department for Transport told the BBC.

The reaction from the Spanish government has so far been fairly muted.

When asked about the British government’s decision to re-impose quarantine, a spokesman for the Spanish Foreign Ministry said: „The government of Spain considers that the situation is under control. The outbreaks are localised, isolated and controlled. Spain is a safe country. We respect the decision of the UK government and we are in touch with them.“ 

Apart from being a blow to the struggling Spanish tourism industry, which depends heavily on the millions British tourists who visit each year, the move has been met with some consternation in Spain where officials have insisted outbreaks are under control.

There’s no doubt the number of cases of coronavirus have been on the rise in recent weeks.

Last Monday Spanish health officials reported that the infection rate had tripled in just over two weeks, from 8,76 per 100,000 inhabitants on July 3rd to 27,39 per 100,000 in recent days.

Albeit the pressure on hospitals remains low, according to officials.

On Friday Spanish newspaper El Pais reported that data from 10 regions showed a rise in cases and hospital admissions.

While many of the 283 active outbreaks were small and could be controlled the overall pattern is one of rising cases, the newspaper said.

But experts say the resurgence is partly due to people relaxing and not sticking to social distancing guidelines, but also due to greater testing capacity resulting in more positive cases being detected.

Catalonia has been affected and forced authorities to ask four million residents in Barcelona to stay at home. The north-eastern provinces of Lleida and Huesca have also seen spikes.

On Saturday Catalan authorities ordered nightclubs to close for two weeks and imposed curbs on bars and restaurants with young people and revellers being blamed for the spike in cases.

The regions of Aragon and Navarre have also seen spikes in cases.

But some parts of the country have been less affected by the resurgence including the southern region of Andalusia and the Balearic and Canary islands.

The fact that the UK government said it was not advising against travel to the Balearic or Canary islands, but would still impose quarantine on travellers returning from those regions, has understandably caused confusion.

Regional authorities in the Canary and Balearic Islands say they would try to get an exemption from the quarantine for people travelling back from the archipelagos.

In an interview with CNN on Friday, the foreign minister, Arancha González Laya, said Spain was one of the countries with the “most controls and mechanisms for identifying outbreaks”.

She dismissed suggestions of a second wave of Covid-19. “We’re not worried; we’re identifying cases and isolating them to cut off transmission,” she said.

“As long as we don’t have a vaccine or a treatment, this is what the new normality will be like. We ask citizens to comply with the restrictions and behave in a responsible manner. There isn’t a second outbreak but there are one-off outbreaks.”

The UK’s decision has been met with surprise and dismay among British residents and tourists in Spain.

Michelle Baker, editor of the Round Town Times newspaper in Benidorm told The Guardian: „It’s so unfair, we’re all wearing masks here and there are only 14 cases on the whole of Alicante. The outbreaks are nowhere near here.“

Some British tourists also lamented the quarantine decision saying they felt safer in Spain than the UK.

“We’re quite frustrated by it to be honest, because it actually feels safer in Spain,” British tourist Carolyne Lansell told Reuters.

Rachel Pinnington, on holiday in Los Alcazares, Murcia said: „It feels perfectly safe here. It feels like a knee-jerk reaction by the government. Everyone is wearing masks. It’s uncomfortable in the heat but I feel safe.“

In a bid to prevent new outbreaks fifteen out of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities have now made face masks compulsory in all indoor and outdoor public spaces. Only Madrid and the Canary islands are not imposing the rule.

The central government, which insists that this is not a „second wave“, considers that the regions have sufficient tools to control the epidemic.

It has also ruled out the possibility of a new state of emergency, which allowed Madrid to impose a strict lockdown in mid-March which was not completely lifted until June 21.

The UK government has also come in for criticism back home.

“I can understand why the government have made this decision … but of course the way in which this decision has been made in the last 24 hours is frankly shambolic,” said the Labour Party’s health policy chief, Jonathan Ashworth, speaking to Sky News.

Other countries have advised against travel to particularly regions in Spain with the French government urging its citizens not to travel to Catalonia. However it has not imposed any quarantine against returning travellers from Spain.

-The Local /AFP

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