The government faces a growing chorus of travel industry condemnation after altering advice for the second time in 48 hours to curb all but essential travel to all of Spain.
Mounting criticism came as Downing Street warned that “no travel is risk free” as the Balearic and Canary islands were included on Monday in quarantine rules after the policy was changed with just hours notice on Saturday.
All arrivals from Spain must now self-isolate for two weeks or face a £1,000 fine following a spike in infections in some parts of the country, although reports today suggested ministers were considering reducing the quarantine period to ten days.
At least £1.4 billion was wiped off the value of listed travel companies and airlines such as British Airways owner IAG, Tui, Jet2 owner Dart Group and Ryanair amid concerns that travel curbs could be extended to other countries.
‘Safer than UK’
Spain’s prime minister Pedro Sanchez insisted tourists in most Spanish regions would be safer from coronavirus than in the UK and called for a rethink, with talks ongoing with the government.
Meanwhile, a petition calling on the Spanish islands to be removed from UK quarantine rules had attracted more than 65,000 signatures at the time of writing.
Association of Independent Tour Operators chairman Chris Rowles led the attack, saying: “We know only too well from our many attempted communications with the five ministries to which the travel industry reports that the government certainly doesn’t engage with us – or the wider travel industry – which is the reason that it has so much egg on its face at present.
“A quick look at the statistics is damning. Spain’s Covid stats, considering its population of 46.75 million, are lower as a percentage of deaths per head of population than the UK’s dire position as the worst performer – by a considerable margin – in Europe.
“It is Aito’s firm belief that the government, by constantly hiding behind sweeping statements about ‘following the science’, without supplying travel industry experts, amongst others, with a firm rationale and allowing the travel industry to discuss it with them, is going down the wrong route in connection with air corridors and quarantine.”
He added: “We in travel very much don’t wish to put our customers, or anyone else, including host destinations, at risk – quite the contrary. But looking at the figures, one is led to think that it could certainly be more dangerous to stay in the UK than to travel to countries like Portugal and Greece, with their very low Covid figures and even lower death tolls per head of population.
“Why on earth isn’t Portugal on the list for no-quarantine air corridors? Its government has produced a convincing, carefully researched paper that outlines the many steps they have taken to safeguard both the Portuguese people and visitors to Portugal.
“Why the initial posturing about whether Greece would, or would not, be confirmed as a quarantine-free air corridor destination?
“A child in primary education could probably tell them that the figures for both Portugal and Greece indicate good Covid housekeeping.”
Emma Coulthurst, consumer advocate and travel commentator at holiday price comparison site TravelSupermarket, said: “This will cause such harm to the UK and Spanish economy to an extent which it isn’t commensurate with the risk. A regionalised approach is required.
“The UK government has used a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The FCO advice and quarantine requirement needs to be localised to those areas affected such as Barcelona and the Costa Brava.”
Of the top ten most booked destinations – people comparing prices and then clicking through to providers to book holiday – six were to Spain in the last week, she pointed out.
“The sudden, no-warning decision on UK travel to Spain will cause a further shredding of consumer confidence and a further economic blow. Why is the FCO advice and quarantine not just for outbreak areas?
“The same for Portugal – why isn’t there a ban on visits to outbreak areas only so that people can enjoy their well-earned holidays in those parts of Portugal not affected by spikes?
“You could argue that you would be safer in the islands in Spain than you are in the UK – they’ve had comparatively few cases of the virus,” Coulthurst added.
The British Airline Pilots Association urged the government to put more coherent measures in place to protect against the transmission of Covid-19 and help build confidence amongst the travelling public.
The pilots’ union warned that Monday’s decision to quarantine Spain and all its islands will create huge costs.
Holidaymakers forced to stay away from work on their return will incur loss of earnings while airlines will face a loss of revenue as a result of government policy, Balpa claimed.
There should be the opportunity to claim for loss of earnings and loss of revenue as a result.
Balpa general secretary Brian Strutton said: “Striking off whole countries is not a proportionate response and does not allow us to accurately target the areas where transmission of Covid-19 is likely to be high. At the same time, it is hugely damaging for the travel industry and the UK economy.
“We are asking the government to sharpen the ‘blunt tool’ approach and look at the tried and tested way the FCO looks at safety and security at regional and city level rather than blacklisting entire countries.
“This would allow us to rebuild much needed connectivity, give people confidence to travel, kick start business and would provide a boost to the economy.
“Time is running out, senior politicians are letting people down, and putting the travel industry and UK economy in a choke hold. Hundreds of MP’s are calling for decisive actions.
“The government’s decision will have cost holidaymakers and airlines a fortune – where is the compensation for that?”
‘Bespoke support’ needed
The Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) demanded transport secretary Grant Shapps provide a “bespoke support package” to save jobs in the travel industry beyond the current jobs retention scheme.
The union wrote to Shapps, who is curtailing his family holiday in Spain, warning that the industry could collapse, pushing thousands into unemployment, without government support.
TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes said: “With the prime minister urging people to go back in to work from 1st August, British workers who’ve booked trips to Spain will have to choose between cancelling their holidays or taking unpaid leave in order to comply with quarantine rules.
“Inevitably, many Brits will cancel their holidays rather than lose two weeks’ wages. Many more will decide not to book a holiday overseas for fear that they too will face the stress of last-minute cancellations.
“It is now more urgent than ever that the government act to save our travel trade industry.
“We need a bespoke solution that extends beyond the end of the current jobs retention scheme. Without government support there is a very real risk that the UK travel industry will collapse and thousands of people will lose their jobs.
“It is essential that Grant Shapps shows that he learned the lessons from the collapse of Thomas Cook – inactivity is simply unacceptable.”
Iata country manager Simon McNamara said: “We need a less blunt tool then simply closing down an entire country for travel as we saw in Spain over the weekend.”
Which? Travel editor Rory Boland said: “Hundreds of thousands of UK holidaymakers in Spain or about to fly are utterly confused.
“While almost all package holidays are now likely to be cancelled, airlines are ignoring the FCO’s travel warning and continuing flights to Spain, therefore refusing customers refunds.
“While some airlines, like British Airways and EasyJet, are waiving rebooking fees, others, like Ryanair have said standard terms and conditions apply. This forces customers to make an impossible decision on whether to fly or risk losing their money.
“The reality is the government says you shouldn’t go, but the airlines won’t refund, and the regulator is yet to take any strong action against airlines who’ve been behaving terribly for months.”