Johnson Is Bringing Brits Home, but They’re Probably Safer in Spain

The British government’s haphazard approach to quarantining travelers won’t make up for its failed domestic coronavirus containment efforts.

A tourist wearing a face mask walks on Magaluf Beach in Calvia on the Spanish island of Mallorca on July 8.
A tourist wearing a face mask walks on Magaluf Beach in Calvia on the Spanish island of Mallorca on July 8. JAIME REINA/AFP via Getty Images

On July 25, the British government removed Spain from the list of countries deemed safe to visit, imposing a two-week self-isolation period for anyone traveling back from the country after 11 p.m. that same day. The move baffled and inconvenienced holidaymakers and angered the Spanish government, and for good reason: Many regions of Spain still have lower infection rates than the U.K. as a whole—as they did when the measure was announced—and the barriers to easy travel between the two countries will further slow the recovery of the Spanish tourism sector, which accounts for nearly 15 percent of the country’s GDP. It’s yet another blow to an industry that was already facing a long summer of cancellations and no-shows.

Almost two-thirds of Spain’s new cases, however, were recorded in the northeasterly regions of Aragon and Catalonia—far from many of the sun-and-sand destinations favored by British tourists in the south. Boris Johnson’s government cited these outbreaks to justify the imposition of a quarantine for travelers returning from Spain as a whole, but it was far from obvious why the entire country was targeted, rather than just the worst-affected areas.

Spain continues to record new infections at a rapid rate, and has seen an 11 percent increase in the cumulative number of cases in the last seven days (at the time of writing). But again, the vast majority of these outbreaks are occurring in Madrid, the Basque country, Catalonia, and Aragon—all regions that are hundreds of miles from the Costa del Sol, where many of the British tourists are concentrated.

Not only was the U.K.-Spain quarantine rule based on an insufficiently nuanced reading of the statistics, it will also be very damaging for Spain’s struggling tourism industry, which is heavily reliant on British visitors. Last year, one in five international visitors to Spain was British, making Britain the most important market for Spanish tourism, followed by Germany and France.

In addition to the islands and the Costa Brava, many of these sun-seekers head to the southern region of Andalusia (especially Málaga’s Costa del Sol), which is also asking for exemption from the U.K. travel measures so as to not sustain further economic damage. Cases of COVID-19 in Andalusia have recently risen to 248 cases per 100,000 people, although the difference between the southern region and Aragon, where that figure soars to 1,681 per 100,000, remains considerable.

Since introducing the travel restrictions on Spain, Britain’s government has also imposed a quarantine on people returning from France, the second most popular holiday destination for Britons. British holidaymakers in France had barely 24 hours to comply with the new regulations, resulting in chaos as an estimated half a million tourists rushed back to a supposedly safer environment.

Again, the move was justified by clusters of new cases, but overall France remains several notches below the U.K. on the World Health Organization’s dashboard, with 207,545 cumulative cases compared to the U.K.’s 320,290, and 30,318 deaths compared to 41,381. Since the end of July, the British government has also imposed similar last-minute quarantines for U.K. citizens returning from Malta, Monaco, the Netherlands, and Belgium, in each case citing outbreaks of new cases as the justification.

For the moment, Turkey remains on the list of safe countries, despite the fact that its cumulative number of cases is higher than France’s, according to the WHO. So too do Croatia and Greece, where there have also been surges of new infections—although the U.K. government is now said to be considering taking all three countries of the “safe list” if their numbers continue to rise.

What’s surprising, given the U.K.’s statistics, is that none of these major tourist destinations, including France and Spain, has yet to retaliate and impose restrictions on citizens returning from Britain, perhaps because the unpredictable British climate makes it a far less pleasurable place to spend a summer than southern Europe (although the French government said that it would “apply reciprocal measures” after the U.K. quarantine rule came into effect).

When the tougher travel measures between Spain and the U.K. were announced, two of the former’s most popular summer destinations were, statistically speaking, much safer than Britain. In the Canary and Balearic Islands, the 14-day cumulative occurrence of the virus  per 100,000 inhabitants was 5.8 and 8 respectively; by marked contrast, it was 14.7 in Britain when the quarantine was announced, less than Spain’s overall figure at the time (39.4) but higher—and in some cases far higher—than in nine of Spain’s 17 regions.

No wonder both these clusters of islands, which rely heavily on summer tourism to sustain their economies, immediately asked for exemption from the Spain-U.K. travel regulations. But in the case of the Balearics, where the number of cases is now 391 per 100,000 people—possibly due to visiting tourists—exemption is unlikely to be granted any time soon.

Given these vast regional disparities, one wonders why Johnson couldn’t have imposed self-isolation only on people coming back from the worst-affected parts of Spain, like other European countries are doing, or even just issue safety advice and warnings, as other governments have done. Spain’s Socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, was right to say that the U.K.’s error lay in “[contemplating] the total accumulated incidents as if they were the country as a whole.”

Other countries are concerned about the rising number of cases in Spain, too—but most of their travel recommendations take into account the geographical unevenness with which the outbreaks are occurring. Belgium has entirely banned travel to the provinces of Huesca in Aragon and Lleida in Catalonia, issuing only guidelines to Belgians visiting the rest of the country. France has recommended that its citizens don’t cross the border to visit Catalonia, a badly affected region that the Netherlands has also warned against traveling to.

So far, Norway is the only other European country to have adopted a similar approach to the U.K., and has imposed a 10-day quarantine for anyone returning from all and any parts of Spain. Sweden—which, like the U.K., has an unenviable record on containing COVID-19—has also imposed a quarantine for citizens returning from Spain, but has exempted those coming back from the Balearic and Canary Islands.

The quarantine announced by Johnson on July 25 might have made more sense had there been an enormous discrepancy between the U.K. and Spain’s numbers at the time. This was the case with Sweden and its neighboring countries, where the restrictions on travel were much more justifiable than those now in place between the U.K. and Spain. Partly because of its government’s hands-off approach to dealing with the spread of COVID-19, Sweden saw much higher per capita infection and deaths rates than Denmark, Norway and Finland, all of which closed their borders to a country widely criticized for not imposing lockdown in March.

Denmark remains the only one of those three countries to have completely lifted the ban on travel to and from Sweden, which it did at the end of July in response to the country’s falling rates (Finland’s border remains closed and Norway currently only permits travel to some parts of Sweden).

Of course, Johnson may argue that excessive caution in imposing travel restrictions is necessary for the U.K. to further reduce its number of cases and deaths—and that if lower numbers can only be achieved with spoiled holidays, then so be it.

What British tourists really need protecting from this summer are the panicked decisions of their mercurial government.

But he should consider looking within rather than focusing on other countries. Johnson’s administration has a sorry track record of dealing with the virus within the U.K., which is evident in more or less everything it does—from lagging behind the rest of Europe in imposing lockdown earlier this year to its bizarre announcement on Aug. 1 that pubs might need to close in September in order for schools to reopen.

This haphazard way of operating is now also resulting in the imposition of travel rules of questionable efficacy, which leave disruption, anger, and economic damage in their wake. Such measures, of course, are presented as being necessary for the preservation of British citizens’ safety—but what British tourists really need protecting from this summer are the panicked decisions of their mercurial government.

One could very plausibly argue that the U.K.’s high numbers now are due to a disorganized approach to containing the virus back in the spring, and that Johnson needs to tighten internal regulations to prevent a second wave, not try and stop people holidaying in countries which are generally safer than Britain. The flurry of new travel restrictions, especially applying to Spain, show the British government to be obsessed with the COVID-19 statistics of other countries, rather than paying enough attention to its own.

Mark Nayler is a freelance journalist based in Spain. He writes on Spanish politics and culture for southern Spain's English-language newspaper, Sur in English, and for The Spectator.

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