LONDON/BARCELONA (REUTERS) - Britain abruptly imposed a two-week quarantine on all travellers arriving from Spain after a surge of coronavirus cases, a dramatic and sudden reversal on Saturday (July 25) to the opening of the European continent to tourism after months of lockdown.
The quarantine requirement was due to take effect from midnight (7am on Sunday, Singapore time), making it impossible for travellers to avoid it by rushing home.
The British foreign ministry also announced it was recommending against all but essential travel to mainland Spain, a move likely to prompt tour operators to cancel package holidays and trigger claims against insurers.
Spain's Canary and Balearic Islands were not covered by the advice to avoid travel to the mainland, but holidaymakers returning to Britain from the islands will still be subject to quarantine on return.
Britain's government urged employers to be "understanding" towards staff who are unable to return to their place of work for two weeks after they return from holiday.
The sudden British move followed steps this week by other European countries.
On Friday, Norway said it would re-impose a 10-day quarantine requirement for people arriving from Spain from Saturday, while France advised people not to travel to Spain's northeastern region of Catalonia.
But the total collapse of tourism from Britain would have far more impact.
Britain accounted for more than 20 per cent of the foreign visitors to Spain last year, the largest group by nationality. Tourism normally accounts for some 12 per cent of Spain's economy.
Spain had been on a list of countries that the British government had said were safe for travellers to visit - meaning tourists returning home would not have to go into quarantine.
The announcement of such lists just weeks ago had allowed Europe's tourism sector to begin its revival after the near total shut-down prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Responding to the British measures, Spain said on Saturday it was a safe country with localised, isolated and controlled outbreaks of the coronavirus.
A Spanish Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Spain "respects decisions of the United Kingdom" and was in touch with the authorities there.
The British move will affect not just Spain's tourism sector but airlines and travel companies struggling to get back to business.
Britain's opposition Labour Party said the news was "deeply concerning" and called for support for British people affected.
A 'SAFE' COUNTRY
Antonio Perez, the mayor of Benidorm, a resort on Spain's Costa Blanca that is hugely dependent on British tourists, called the move "another tough blow".
"We have suffered lot this year and then this happened. We thought that the British were going to come back but this makes things harder for now," he said.
Spain was one of the worst hit countries in Europe by the pandemic, with more than 290,000 cases, and more than 28,000 deaths.
It imposed very strict lockdown measures to contain the spread, gradually easing them earlier this summer.
But the last few weeks saw a surge of cases, forcing local lockdowns to be reimposed in some areas.
On Friday, Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya told CNN television that like many countries around the world that have managed to control the disease, Spain "has outbreaks but the governments - both national and regional - are working to isolate cases as soon as they appear".
The Catalonia region reported 1,493 new coronavirus cases and three deaths on Saturday. The regional government has urged residents of Barcelona to stay at home, and ordered all discos to shut from Saturday for the next 15 days.
Britain itself has been the worst hit country in Europe by the pandemic, with more than 328,000 cases and an official death toll of more than 45,600.