Britain’s Treatment of Spain is Irresponsible


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 in the number of Coronavirus cases across the country, particularly in the cities of Barcelona, Zaragoza and Madrid.

However, Spain’s autonomous communities have reported great discrepancies in the number of active cases, with 65.4% registered in the northern 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.

With pressure mounting for Britain to regionalise its travel bans, critics peg the move as part of a pattern of hasty, short-sighted decision-making.

Trouble in Paradise

The Spanish government is in an awkward bind, determined to prove the efficiency of its tough lockdown laws while keeping afloat an economy built on tourism.

Brits abroad ordinarily contribute 3% of Spanish GDP and the country stands to lose 11% if it shuts down its industry altogether.

While industrialised hubs like Barcelona – now a hotspot for foreign property developers and marketing firms, mostly equipped for remote work – may survive a quiet holiday season, others will be less fortunate.

Since opening to international travel in the 1950s, many of the islands along Spain’s eastern coast have built reliable local economies on tourism. The Balearic Islands earn 44.2% of their income from foreign travel and risk extending seasonal unemployment without welcoming back holidaymakers.

Island geography, limited air travel and tightly regulated safety measures have kept cases low along much of the peninsula’s coastline– a careful formula for success that the country seems desperate to parade for anxious travellers.

Britain’s Blunder

A blanket ban on travel will make Britain few friends.

With consent for lockdowns gradually falling among Brits, the symbolic gesture of a safe, controlled passage to parts of Spain may be what’s needed to revive faith in government.

And with other countries now trialling new self-isolation rules for international travel, Britain risks looking needlessly draconian next to those who get it right.

Germany, having put together its own plans for returning travellers, recently urged 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.

Spain has done well to maintain the sense that things are improving. They are. Conditioning full reopening on the obligatory wearing of face-masks gives citizens deliberate responsibility for the country’s recovery, and consent for restrictions remains high.

Bars and restaurants remain open, with small changes made to seating and opening hours. Museums are open; nightclubs are not. The police are mostly tolerant and patient with holidaymakers as they acclimatise to new rules.

Owing to this, the Balearic Islands have a rate of 8.35 cases per 100,000, much lower than Britain’s 26.

The Barcelona hotbed has also been able to relax some of its restrictions as of Thursday 30 July.

Getting it Right

Along the peninsula’s eastern coast, there is the feeling that local success is tied to individual responsibility. The Spanish have worked hard to keep cases low, closely following strict new laws in areas historically at odds with government.

The model still needs some work. 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, Barcelona, 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. Closing off beaches has driven locals further north to the cleaner coast around Montgat while tourists cluster around Barceloneta. Intentional disruptions to public transport in an effort to break up tourist hotspots have been poorly communicated, affecting many.

Tourism hotspots have some work to do to reassure anxious holidaymakers.

But the British response 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.

The sentiment in Spain is that Britain’s rash response 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.

After Brexit, Britain should be aiming to rebuild its reputation as a reliable, calculated partner in trade and justice. Instead, it does the opposite– and then celebrates the mistake.

A Broken System

The country would do well to follow the example of its neighbours, making cautious, boring policy decisions and claiming easy wins. At present, the country is in panic mode, driven by the desperate need to be seen to doing something, conceding the need to be effective.

What Spain has got right is a message of consistency. Though some of its propaganda has taken a while to filter through the country, it has gradually layered on a straightforward and trustworthy PR campaign: 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 and to offer strong furlough schemes have been in vain, undermined by a lack of trust in the government. Wading into sweeping policy decisions has created unnecessary anxiety and uncertainty where it need not have been.

This time last week, Ipsos MORI reported that 9 in 10 Britons agree that it is essential or important to wear a mask. There are many of these easily-solved gaps between state and public, rejoined by steady and consultative policymaking.

At home and abroad, Britain will have to recover its sense of stability if it is to win back trust. The answer is not in grandiose displays of power but – as the Spanish have proven – in slow and simple consistency.

Words by James Reynolds


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