LONDON – The British government came under renewed pressure Wednesday to refine its travel policies following criticism of its sudden decision to remove Spain from its safe list, a sudden change that has upended many vacation plans and rocked the ailing travel industry.
While London Heathrow Airport urged a ramp-up in coronavirus testing and the U.K.'s biggest tour operator recommended a more regional approach to quarantining, Culture Minister Oliver Dowden downplayed the prospects for any change, arguing there was “no viable alternative.”
Heathrow's chief executive, John Holland-Kaye, said he wants the 14-day self-isolation requirement to be eased for people arriving from countries not on the government’s exemption list — should they test negative for the virus on arrival as well as some days after.
“The U.K. needs a passenger testing regime and fast,” he said Wednesday alongside half-year results showing the airport reporting a pretax loss of 1.1 billion pounds ($1.4 billion). “Without it, Britain is just playing a game of quarantine roulette.”
His suggestion follows another hugely difficult few days for anyone connected with travel abroad following the decision to remove Spain from the list of countries where quarantine-free travel was permitted.
The change has thrown into turmoil the plans of many British families currently in Spain or due to fly there this summer. It's also another blow to the travel industry, which is trying to salvage something from the summer.
Spain is traditionally the number one holiday destination for Britons — 18 million or so made the trip in 2019 — and resorts like those on the Costa del Sol or on the Balearic island of Mallorca are hugely reliant on tourism from the U.K.
Though the U.K. has the highest official coronavirus-related death toll in Europe at nearly 46,000, new daily infections are stable around the 700 mark. Spain, which also suffered badly during the pandemic with more than confirmed 28,000 deaths, has seen a spike in infections over the past week or two toward a 7-day rolling average of around 1,900 a day.
The Spanish government says the U.K. move is disproportionate, insisting the outbreak is localized in areas in the northeast of the country. It also says that the rates of infection in the Balearic and Canary Islands, which were added to the wider Spanish advice on Monday, are lower than those in the U.K.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said Wednesday that his government is working “tirelessly” to persuade the U.K. to reverse its decision.
The damage to the Spanish tourism is becoming more apparent by the day. Around 12% of the Spanish economy is dependent on tourism, rising to 30% or so for the Balearic and Canary Islands.
On Wednesday, TUI UK extended its suspension of vacations to the Balearic Islands and Canary Islands for U.K. customers until August 4 and confirmed that trips to mainland Spain remain cancelled until August 10. The U.K.'s biggest tour operator also said it will increase flights to Greece and Turkey, neither of which require anyone to self-isolate on their return.
Its managing director, Andrew Flintham, said the British government should remove “the blunt tool approach” of quarantine and consider regional travel corridors instead.
“The level of uncertainty and confusion created this week is damaging for business and customer confidence in travel," he said.
The British government has said it could toughen its travel advice to other destinations in the event of a spike in infections. Belgium, Croatia and Luxembourg are three countries mentioned as possibly being removed from the quarantine-exempt list.
Given the uncertainty, it's increasingly clear than most people in Britain have opted against their traditional summer getaway to the resorts of the Mediterranean. Heathrow, for example, would normally fly around 250,000 people a day at peak time in July. Now, passenger numbers are around 25,000.
“As many of our customers have experienced, it’s difficult to plan a holiday that way, let alone run a business,” said Heathrow’s Holland-Kaye. “Testing offers a way to safely open up travel and trade to some of the U.K.’s biggest markets which currently remain closed.”
The government is showing few signs of changing course.
“The challenge we have here is that it’s not the case you can simply test somebody and be sure that they don’t have the disease," Culture Secretary Dowden told the BBC. “It can incubate over a period of time, so there’s not a silver bullet of just testing immediately at the border.”
Joe Wilson in Barcelona and Barry Hatton in Lisbon contributed to this report.