Spain is scrambling to stay ahead of new outbreaks of the coronavirus that prompted the U.K. to impose a quarantine on travelers returning from the country, dealing a new blow to its tourism-dependent economy.
Only weeks after the U.K. included Spain on a list of countries safe for summer holidays, the government reversed course and announced late Saturday it would impose a 14-day quarantine on anyone arriving from Spain. The move came after cases in the country jumped, particularly in the Catalonia region, where authorities are racing to stamp out new outbreaks.
Norway on Friday announced a 10-day quarantine for people returning from Spain, and France issued new travel warnings for the Catalonia region, which is home to Barcelona and popular beaches. The moves will further weigh on bookings in the peak travel period for a country that depends on tourism for more than 10% of gross domestic product.
Spain’s health ministry reported more than 920 new cases on both Thursday and Friday, the highest numbers since early May, when the government began easing one of Europe’s strictest lockdowns. Most of those were in the region of Catalonia in northeastern Spain, where authorities have been expanding restrictions to try to flatten the curve. In Barcelona, nightclubs have been ordered shut for two weeks and there is a midnight curfew on bars. A partial lockdown affecting 200,000 people has already been imposed in the western district of Segria.
TUI UK, the country’s biggest tour operator and a unit of the German travel company, suspended all its holidays to mainland Spain through Aug. 9, Sky News reported. The World Travel & Tourism Council called the U.K. decision a “bitter blow” for travelers and said local lockdowns, not broader travel restrictions would be a better solution.
“We are quite frustrated. We actually feel safer here, because everyone is wearing masks,” Carolyne Lansell, a British tourist, said in an interview with Spanish state-television broadcaster TVE.
The Spanish government is trying to convince the U.K. government to exempt the Balearic and Canary islands, where infections are “far below” U.K. rates, from the quarantine order, Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya said in a statement Sunday. The two island regions are among Spain’s biggest tourist destinations for foreigners.
“Spain is a safe country,” Gonzalez Laya said. “Spain has outbreaks. As do other countries. What’s important is that Spain is making great efforts to control these outbreaks.”
Spain was one of the hardest hit countries in Europe by the coronavirus and has already suffered more than 28,000 fatalities, the fourth-highest tally in Europe after the U.K., Italy and France. A national lockdown started in March had largely tamed the spread of Covid-19, but the easing of those restrictions and the start of the summer tourism season has contributed to an uptick, particularly among young people frequenting crowded bars and clubs.
Cases in neighboring France, which has more than 30,000 fatalities, have also been climbing, with new infections topping 1,000 on some days.
“We’ve returned to levels comparable to those at the end of the lockdown period,” the public health agency said in its daily statement on Friday. “We’ve thus erased a good part of the progress that we had accomplished in the weeks after the lockdown was lifted.”
Countries around the Mediterranean Sea were praying that a glimpse of tourism would get them through the summer before the cold snap drives people indoors and ushers in a second chapter to the pandemic. Now, it appears the spread of the virus may not wait for the winter months.
Governments across the globe have been bracing for a second wave, though there is little appetite for reimposing large scale lockdowns on already crippled economies. The hope is that localizing quarantines to towns, cities and regions will be enough to snuff out bouts of infections as they come.
Italy was the first Western democracy to quarantine the entire population as it became apparent its death toll was going to overtake that of China, where the virus originated. A person close to Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte described that decision as “shock therapy” that can’t be repeated. The euro’s weakest economy this week became the biggest beneficiary of the European Union’s $860 billion rescue package.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was initially reluctant to order a lockdown and then ended up in intensive care fighting for his life after contracting Covid-19. Yet he finds the idea of isolating the nation again so off-putting that he compared it to a nuclear deterrent: “I certainly don’t want to use it.”
French Prime Minister Jean Castex, was equally blunt: “We won’t survive, economically and socially.”
With the world facing its worst recession since the Great Depression and U.S. President Donald Trump fighting for re-election in November, voters are on edge. Politicians of all stripes are looking for ways to ease the pain — not add to it — as fear morphs into anger and discontent.
“Populations can be summoned to heroic acts of collective self-sacrifice for a while, but not forever,” political scientist Francis Fukuyama, author of “The End of History and the Last Man,” wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine. “A lingering epidemic combined with deep job losses, a prolonged recession, and an unprecedented debt burden will inevitably create tensions that turn into a political backlash — but against whom is as yet unclear.”