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Update 10:15 PST: The UK government has changed its travel advisory note and now advises against all but essential travel to mainland Spain AND the Canary and Balearic Islands. Effectively, the government has conceded that its original advisory was idiotic.
Over the weekend the UK government suddenly reimposed quarantine restrictions on all travelers returning from Spain but, even though we all know the quarantine will be toothless, there’s some logic to applying a quarantine to those returning from Spain and I don’t have an issue with how quickly the new quarantine order was introduced. What I do take issue with is the truly idiotic messaging coming from two key government departments.
When the UK introduced its quarantine restrictions on most of the world back in June it was a monumentally idiotic move. The quarantine rules were implemented at least 10 weeks after they should have been put in place (the horse had long bolted when the regulations were finally introduced), travelers from countries where infection rates were far lower than those in the UK we inexplicably told to quarantine for 14 days, the rules had so many holes in them they were not fit for purpose and the UK government has been doing very little to actually enforce its own rules.
This time around things are a little different. Certain areas of northern Spain are seeing significant spikes in infection rates so the UK government, still stinging from all the criticism surrounding its failure to implement a timely quarantine when the virus first hit, decided to take swift action. I have no problem with that. Yes, some will argue that there’s no need for travelers visiting unaffected parts of Spain to be quarantined but that’s something that would be a lot harder to police than a blanket quarantine and I understand where the government is coming from. I may not like it, but I understand it.
What I don’t understand is why the UK’s Department for Transport (DfT) is saying this:
“If you arrive in England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland from Spain on or after 26 July 2020 you will need to self-isolate.”
While the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) is saying this:
From 26 July, the FCO advises against all non-essential travel to mainland Spain based on the current assessment of COVID-19 risks. Only the Canary Islands (Tenerife, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, La Palma, La Gomera, El Hierro and La Graciosa) and Balearic Islands (Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza, and Formentera) are exempt from the FCO advice against all non-essential international travel.
If, as the DfT says, a quarantine is required for travelers arriving from any part of Spain, why is the FCO suggesting that it’s ok to travel to the Canary and Balearic Islands? Either the whole country is a hot-spot (DfT) or it’s not (FCO) – which is it?
You may be thinking that this really isn’t something that matters and that I’m just splitting hairs here, but this actually matters a lot to UK residents with plans to visit the Canary or Balearic Islands. It matters because what the FCO has to say has a big effect on how travel insurers will act.
Here are two key things to know:
1. Just because the DfT imposes quarantine restrictions on travelers returning from a given country doesn’t mean that all the tour operators and airlines will be canceling the package deals and flights they have been selling to that country so, if a traveler decides they no longer want to go ahead with their trip (because they can’t afford to go into 14-day quarantine when they return), they will have to cancel the trip themselves. A traveler who voluntarily cancels a trip is not entitled to a cash refund and will have to settle for whatever the tour operator or airline is prepared to offer (at best, it will be a voucher for future travel).
2. If the FCO issues advice against visiting a specific country, anyone whose flights/vacations to that country are not cancelled can rely on their travel insurance to pay up – they do not have to accept whatever the airlines and tour operators will be offering.
If you apply these facts to the situation the UK government has created for travelers with plans to visit Spain, this is what you’re left with:
- The DfT has said that everyone who wants to visit Spain has to quarantine for 14 days upon their return.
- Everyone with plans to visit mainland Spain can rely on getting all of their money back via their travel insurance because the FCO has advised against all but essential travel to mainland Spain.
- Anyone with plans to visit the Canary or Balearic Islands has no protection whatsoever because the FCO has deliberately excluded the islands from its travel warning.
This is mind-blowing idiocy.
The government knows that thousands upon thousands of UK residents have plans to visit Spain this summer (a lot are already there) so I understand the nervousness it must feel when it sees parts of that country seeing significant spikes in infection rates. We can’t complain about the government’s incompetence in not swiftly implementing quarantine laws at the beginning of the outbreak and then complain that it’s introducing them too quickly when it sees a potential threat.
It’s also a little unfair to expect the government to only implement restrictions on people returning from select areas of Spain because, let’s face it, anyone who has been visiting a hot-spot will do their best to circumvent the rules by making sure they return to the UK from an area not considered at risk. Quarantine rules limited to travelers returning from select areas only would be completely unmanageable.
What isn’t unfair is to expect the UK government to make sure that the policies it enacts don’t leave some travelers worse off than others when there’s absolutely no reason to do so. If a quarantine is deemed necessary for travelers returning from all parts of Spain then fair enough – implement the quarantine – but don’t allow your two key departments to issue mixed messages which then give the insurance companies ample reason not to pay out on their policies.
We all the quarantine rules won’t work because they’re not being enforced, and we also know that unless other European countries enforce quarantine rules on travelers returning from Spain there will be plenty of ways that people will be able to circumvent the UK rules without all that much effort…but that’s not the point here.
The point here is that, once again, the UK government has shown itself to be incapable of taking stock in a cool, calm and collected manner before leaping into action and, as a result, it has needlessly left thousands of UK travelers at the mercy of the airlines and tour operators.
Here’s an idea: Perhaps if the government put as much time and effort into thinking through its key decisions as it puts into defending unelected advisors who break the law, these kinds of issues wouldn’t arise.