Britain abruptly imposed a two-week quarantine on all travelers arriving from Spain after a surge of coronavirus cases, a dramatic and sudden reversal Saturday to the opening of the European continent to tourism after months of lockdown.
The quarantine requirement was due to take effect at midnight (2300 GMT on Saturday), making it impossible for travelers 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” toward 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 reimpose a 10-day quarantine requirement for people arriving from Spain beginning 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% of the foreign visitors to Spain last year, the largest group by nationality. Tourism normally accounts for 12% of Spain’s economy.
Spain had been on a list of countries that the British government had said were safe for travelers 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 shutdown prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Responding to the British measures, Spain said Saturday that it was a safe country with localized, 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 also 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.
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 a 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.
The pandemic hit Spain hard, 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 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 Saturday. The regional government has urged residents of Barcelona to stay at home, and it ordered all discos to shut beginning Saturday for the next 15 days.
Britain has been hit harder by the pandemic than any other country in Europe, with more than 328,000 cases and an official death toll of more than 45,600.