On Saturday 25 July, the UK government announced that those returning from Spain would face a 14 day self-isolation period, effective from Monday 27 July. This comes after reports of spikes across the country, particularly in the cities of Barcelona, Zaragoza and Madrid.
But the story has stayed in the minds of many as a reflection of Britain’s hasty, reactive and irresponsible approach to changes on the international stage.
Notably, the autonomous communities in Spain have reported great discrepancies in the number of active cases, with 65.4% registered in the regions of Aragon and Catalonia. In an interview with the Telecinco TV network, Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez ruled the decision “unjust”, claiming the UK had made an “error” in imposing a nationwide self-isolation period.
Spain itself relies on tourism for approximately 11% of its GDP; around 3% comes directly from Britain. But the quarantine poses a much greater threat to the islands along the eastern coast, which have sold themselves as tourist destinations – on and off – since the 1950s.
The Balearic islands, for one, take 44.2% of their GDP from tourism and stand to suffer greatly from any further deterrents to British travel. Germany has put together similar self-isolation periods for returning travellers, while urging Britain to avoid a blanket ban that would negatively affect areas with a low rate of infection.
Despite this, the UK’s Foreign Office has updated its travel advice against all but essential travel to the Spanish islands, although the Spanish Ministry of Health reports just 8.35 cases per 100,000 people in the Balearic Islands, compared to the UK’s average of 26 per 100,000.
Perhaps there is a logic to stopping Brits from going abroad and spending their hard-saved cash on Spanish booze, especially as the government seems keen to push its citizens back into its own restaurants next month. Otherwise, perhaps the decision reflects wider incompetence, reacting quickly but without thought to averages and policy changes abroad; following Spanish decisions to rethink opening laws last week, Britain has adopted the strategy of copying the homework of its European neighbours without checking the working.
I flew to Barcelona on 17 July to see friends and for work, returning on Monday, and was generally impressed by the handling of the situation. The condition of reopening the economy has been set on the obligatory wearing of face-masks nationwide since May – at least when social distancing is not possible. An exception seems to be made when seated for food or drink, although bars and restaurants have taken measures to space-out seating. It was clear that people were still venturing out for food, to visit tourist spots and eat out; museums remained open, nightclubs did not. The police seemed generally tolerant of the re-emergence of Brits abroad, so long as they mostly followed the guidelines. Supermarket chain Mercadona formally ditched its compulsory use of plastic gloves in mid-July, though larger shops in the city apparently still offer protection for shoppers. And some of the more popular beaches had access restricted or trains diverted to deter tourists from clogging up crowded areas.
As a result, Barcelona has already been able to relax some of its restrictions as of Thursday 30 July.
Of course, Spain is not perfect. The country’s testing system lags behind the UK and tracing in Catalonia has faced criticism for being “not adequately prepared to trace the new infections.” Recent changes to guidelines are felt to have been rushed and improperly disclosed. The owner of a bar in El Born told me: “On Friday the police showed up and told everybody to leave. The new curfew means all bars have to be shut by midnight. But it was Friday night and it had only been announced a couple of hours before. The police show up and kick everybody out and just like that we have to readjust again.” Other bars have refused to open, put off by the new laws. Otherwise, closing off beaches has moved the locals further north to the emptier, cleaner beaches around Montgat, but tourists seem to have clustered in the areas around Barceloneta. Intentional disruptions to public transport in an effort to break up tourist hotspots have been poorly communicated, affecting many.
But the British response to Spain’s is not fit for purpose. The plans to impose a 14 day self-isolation period in the UK were announced just two days before taking effect. Many of those travelling between the UK and Spain have faced a loss of income with little time to put in place the necessary arrangements. Complications may be expected when flying during a pandemic, but the reactiveness of the government has been irresponsible. First for Spain: which last month spent £4.25billion on its Tourism Sector Promotion Plan and has already invested in making cities safer for tourists. Second: for visitors now facing a drastic reduction in flights home, and unable to access occupational sick pay.
What’s more, yesterday the UK government announced changes that would see those who test positive for COVID-19 or show symptoms self-isolate for ten days – up from seven (still ineffective if symptoms can take up to 14 days to show). Thus, diagnosed cases of Coronavirus are required to self-isolate for less time than somebody who tests negative, but who has returned from Spain after Monday 27 July. Those who live with somebody returning from Spain are also not required to self-isolate, resulting in a strange and inconsistent state in which holidaymakers are treated as a third category – posing enough risk to be quarantined, but not enough to stop housemates from getting on the tube or going to work. Where the boss of Heathrow Airport called for a system of comprehensive testing for arrivals at airports to avoid quarantine measures, ministers pushed back, saying that testing would only recognise a small minority of cases in the first instance.
As Simon Jenkins writes in The Guardian, the decision shows that the UK is still in panic mode. The worrying element of this story is the appearance of a continental chain reaction, set about by a small stir in parts of Spain, driven by the desperate need to be seen to doing something, conceding the need to be effective. Britain is unequipped to make its own decisions, and now Spain getting its act together with test-and-trace has correlated major disruptions across Europe.
What Spain has got right is a message of consistency. Though some of its propaganda has taken a while to filter through the country, and conflict between local and national government has surely slowed things down, it has fostered a state of freedom, caution and common sense through clear messaging: wear a mask and don’t do things if you don’t need to. In Britain, public perception is still defined by confusion. All attempts to improve testing, to secure vaccinations, to offer strong furlough schemes and fund one of the cheapest Big Macs in the world have been in vain, undermined by a lack of trust in the government. Consistency, sooner than policy and outcome, has been the guiding force that has secured the respect of the Spanish and enabled a much freer and safer society than the one we have here.
This time last week, Ipsos MORI reported that 9 in 10 Britons agree that it is essential or important to wear a mask. This shows that a stark and ugly discrepancy remains between the state and its people, the people aligning mostly with the rest of Europe, and the state in constant flux between hasty decision-making and idle hesitation. As Spain implores Britain to think for itself, Boris leans fully into his latest campaign: take the dog for a walk and lose some weight.
Words by James Reynolds
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