The FCO needs to admit it made a big mistake banning Spain’s islands

Greg Dickinson
·5-min read
Holidays to Ibiza are, currently, off the table - Getty
Holidays to Ibiza are, currently, off the table - Getty

I received a message last night. A friend was asking if I had any insight into whether the Spanish islands would be added to the Government’s “travel corridor” list any time soon.

If not, he and his partner would have to cancel their trip, lose a considerable wedge of money, and re-book somewhere else at the last minute.

My answer was no. There has been no sign that the FCO is planning a regional travel corridor to the Canaries, nor the Balearics. In fact, just this week a Government source told the Telegraph “there is nothing at the moment to suggest a change” to the UK’s travel policy for Spain’s islands.

Resigned, the friend duly cancelled his trip, as thousands of others across the UK have been forced to do since Spain went on the UK’s ‘red list’ on July 25. In many cases, considerable sums of money will be lost in the process.

Let’s be straight. Some form of travel ban on Spain was unavoidable. New cases on the mainland show no signs of slowing – 8,532 were recorded on Monday, the highest number since March 23. The rising number of cases per 100,000 over two weeks is 78. By comparison, the UK is at 14, Portugal is at 27 and France is at 22. Spain is one of the darkest reds, on the map of rising cases in Europe.

But most of the cases in Spain are isolated to the northeast of the mainland. In the last week Catalonia has seen 6,708 cases, Aragón 6,684. But the Canary Islands has had 94 cases – an average of 13 per day. Their average new cases per 100,000 is just 4. The Balearics numbers are similarly under control: 398 in the past week. 

So it’s understandable that Spain’s tourism officials have held out hope that, applying logic and reason, the FCO might hold its hands up and review its decision. Reyes Maroto, Spain’s tourism minister, said on Spanish TV on Monday that Britain could lift its quarantine after receiving new epidemiological data that would require the UK to review its restrictions on travel to Spain. She said the islands, in particular, had a “low incidence rate" and that the UK should review its indicators.

However, the claims were shot down by Government sources who said they were wrong, and that there were “no updates planned in the next couple of days.” 

The question is, why can’t we apply a sensible quarantine policy like our European neighbours? Yesterday, Switzerland introduced a ten-day travel ban for anyone arriving into the country from Spain; the Canaries and Balearics are exempt. Germany also updated its travel quarantine list last week to include areas of Spain with a high incident of Covid-19 (Aragon, Catalonia, Navarre), but exempted the lower-risk regions and the islands, too.

Other countries are pursuing a region-by-region travel policy. Last week, the Netherlands put the Belgian city and province of Antwerp on its ‘code orange’ list, meaning people must come back immediately and quarantine on return. The rest of Belgium is fair game.

Yet health minister Lord Bethell told the House of Lords last Monday that it was “impossible” for the UK to introduce varying quarantine regimes for people visiting different parts of Spain. His reasoning to his fellow peers was: “Within individual countries, there is no way for us to control intra-country transport.

“It is therefore very difficult and challenging to have a regional exemption list. That is why we have not been able to give exemptions to the Balearics.”

What kind of scrambled logic is this? With open borders across Europe, surely this means that anywhere neighbouring a ‘red list’ country should be banned, too. France borders Catalonia – should we not introduce a France travel quarantine right away? Should we not be banning Norway, which now allows border crossings from the red-list Sweden? For weeks in July we had Portugal on the “red list” and Spain on the “green list”, and Britons could cross freely between the two.

There is, of course, some risk of people flying into a "safe" Spanish mainland region, driving to a danger zone, then flying back from the safe zone, were we to pursue a regional quarantine ban on mainland Spain. But surely the number of people who would spend hundreds of pounds, and many stressful hours, perhaps with children in tow, to fly home via one of Spain's islands is slim. If anyone is that keen to dodge the rules, you've got to assume they would just ignore the quarantine on return.

As a travel journalist covering the daily rises and falls, the catalogue of new social distancing restrictions and hodge podge of hygiene measures, it is indeed a task to keep up-to-date on the full picture on what's going on around the world. So I do not envy the individuals at the Foreign Office, attempting to make sense of the varying data and noises coming in from overseas.

But there is nothing ambiguous or difficult to compute when it comes to the Spanish islands. The enduring travel ban on Spain’s islands has ruined holidays for thousands of Britons, and has put the UK’s biggest high street travel agent, Hay’s Travel, in a position where it is having to cut a fifth of its workforce.

They made the announcement this week that more than 800 members of staff are at risk of losing their jobs, and pointed to Spain as the cause of the woes: "In parts of Spain, on the Costa Del Sol, the islands, Majorca, Tenerife, Lanzarote, Ibiza, the Canaries... the incidence of the virus is very low - less than the UK.

"The German government's reaction has been to quarantine people going to the north-east of Spain, but allow people to go to all of the other places I've just said, and that's a much more targeted and sophisticated approach."

A sophisticated approach. That is what is needed, rather than this ill-conceived blanket ban that is suffocating an already struggling travel industry, in both the UK and Spain, and starving British holidaymakers of a much-needed break.