Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the Government will not apologise for reimposing strict quarantine rules at short notice on travellers returning from Spain.
Ministers announced on Saturday that holidaymakers who had not returned from Spain and its islands by midnight would be forced to quarantine for 14 days after Covid-19 second wave fears saw the European country struck off the UK’s safe list.
The sudden timing of the announcement was criticised by the travel sector and consumer rights groups but Mr Raab said the Government was right to take “swift” action.
The quick turnaround caught out even Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, who is currently in Spain for his summer break and will join thousands of others in being forced to self-isolate for a fortnight on his return to Britain.
The decision was taken to suspend the so-called travel corridor with the UK’s most popular holiday destination after Spain recorded more than 900 fresh daily Covid-19 cases for two days running.
Mr Raab told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme: “The data we got was on the Friday, it showed a big jump right across mainland Spain. That was then assessed yesterday afternoon and we took the decision as swiftly as we could.
“And we can’t make apologies for doing so.
“We must be able to take swift, decisive action, particularly in relation to localised, or internationally in relation to Spain or a particular country, where we see we must take action.
“Otherwise, we risk reinfection into the UK, potentially a second wave here and then another lockdown.
“So, yes, I understand it is disruptive for those going through this who are in Spain or have been considering going but we must though be able to take swift, decisive action to protect the UK, because we’ve made such progress in getting the virus down, and prevent the virus retaking hold in the UK.”
The Cabinet minister conceded there is an “element of personal responsibility” involved when telling those arriving from Spain to self-isolate but stressed there are “penalties for non-compliance”.
Mr Raab used his Sunday morning appearance to issue a warning to rogue employers, saying no worker following quarantine guidance should be penalised – including by being put on to statutory sick pay.
“We expect employers to show those employees who will have to quarantine because of the law (change) the flexibility they need,” he added.
“If someone is following the law in relation to quarantine and self-isolating the way they should, they can’t have penalties taken against them.”
Labour criticised the Government’s handling of the decision, labelling it “frankly shambolic”.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the rapid way Spain had been removed from the safe list had left holidaymakers “confused and distressed” and called for financial support for those now forced to shut themselves away on their return home.
He told Sophy Ridge: “The way in which this decision has been communicated is obviously causing anxiety.
“When the Government makes decisions, whether it is putting a city like Leicester into lockdown or telling holidaymakers they are going to have to quarantine for 14 days, they have got to back it up with financial support for people.”
Consumer rights and travel groups expressed frustration at the lack of warning over the suspension of the travel corridor, with Tui, the UK’s biggest tour operator, questioning why “we didn’t get more notice of this announcement” with thousands of Britons flocking to Spain over the weekend.
Travellers also hit out at the Government’s blanket decision to include the Spanish islands in the isolation measures.
The Foreign Office is now advising against all but essential travel to mainland Spain but the quarantine measures also apply to the Canary Islands and the Balearic Islands, such as Mallorca and Ibiza, despite having lower infection rates.
Zeta Hill, a 35-year-old teacher from Essex, has been on holiday in Majorca for 12 days and is due to fly back with husband Stuart, 51, on Tuesday.
She said there was “no logic” to the decision to include the Balearic Islands in the announcement.
“We are not on mainland Spain and cases on the islands have been really low,” she told the PA news agency.
“We haven’t gone near the mainland. We feel so safe here.”
Passengers arriving to Gatwick Airport from Spain on Sunday morning expressed their frustration at the quarantine rule change.
Those disembarking from a flight from Barcelona that landed shortly before 9am now face two weeks of self-isolation.
Philip Bradby, 55, and Marina Wilson, 40, from Bournemouth, said they had returned from holiday early due to the shut down of the travel corridor with Spain.
“I think it’s quite poor that they did it so instantaneously,” Mr Bradby said.
Jill Witte, 53, arriving back in the country with her two daughters and husband, said the quarantine rule changes would “massively” inconvenience the family.
“We were shocked, it didn’t look like that was coming, otherwise we wouldn’t have gone,” she said.
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