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Quarantine Order Blindsides Britons Returning From Spain

LONDON — Often criticized for a slow response to the coronavirus, the British government moved quickly this weekend to impose a quarantine on anyone arriving from Spain, after a spike in Covid-19 cases there.

But this time speed brought disarray to thousands of Britons, blindsiding those who have already gone to Spain and embarrassing Britain’s transportation secretary, Grant Shapps. He is responsible for aviation policy but learned of the quarantine while on his own vacation.

In Spain.

The abrupt decision means that Mr. Shapps, like others who left Britain assuming that they could return without restrictions will be required to isolate themselves for 14 days.

Many who were about to depart Britain have been forced to rethink their plans. Some flights to Spain were canceled. And even those planning to head elsewhere were reminded that quarantine rules can change overnight.

Britain’s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said the decision had been made after a review of data received on Friday that showed a large jump in Spanish cases.

“We took the decision as swiftly as we could,” Mr. Raab told Sky News.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government moved only recently to lift restrictions on those hoping for summer vacations abroad. Now the Foreign Office urges Britons to avoid all nonessential travel to mainland Spain, though it says it is “not advising those already traveling in Spain to leave at this time.”

The Scottish government, which had lifted its quarantine rules for Spain just a few days ago, said it would reimpose them too.

As a result, Britain’s biggest tour operator, Tui, said it was canceling all its vacations to mainland Spain until Aug. 9, though several airlines, including British Airways, were still offering flights. Airline officials expressed the frustration of a devastated sector, however.

“​This is, sadly, yet another blow for British holidaymakers and cannot fail to have an impact on an already troubled aviation industry,” British Airways said in a statement, adding that the change was “throwing thousands of Britons’ travel plans into chaos.”

For some of those still hoping to enjoy some Spanish sun, the viability of their vacations could depend on their employers’ willingness to let them stay at home for 14 days after their return.

“The government’s policy regarding travel restrictions has lacked grip and coherence from the outset,” said Nick Thomas-Symonds, who speaks on home affairs issues for the opposition Labour Party. “This latest decision-making process regarding Spain and the short notice for travelers has created a sense of panic and loss of control.”

Britons normally make up around one-fifth of foreign visitors to Spain, and the Spanish foreign minister called on Sunday for Britain to exclude at least Spain’s two archipelagoes — the Balearic Islands and the Canary Islands — from its quarantine order. Both are major British tourist destinations and have had low Covid-19 caseloads throughout the epidemic.

The foreign minister, Arancha González Laya, said on Sunday that Spain had brought its three major mainland outbreaks under control.

From a high of about 8,000 confirmed new infections per day in early April, Spain dropped below 300 early this month. But in the last week, the daily average has topped 1,700 — as many as Britain, France and Italy combined — and, as in many places, experts say the real figure is higher, with many cases going undetected.

On Friday, Norway also reimposed a quarantine for people arriving from Spain, while Belgium recommended the same for six of Spain’s 17 regions, as well as forbidding its citizens from traveling to two specific Spanish provinces, Huesca and Lleida.

France on Friday advised against travel to Catalonia, Spain’s northeastern region bordering France, where hundreds of thousands of residents were put back under temporary lockdown this month.

Since Spain ended its state of emergency on June 21, new outbreaks have underlined a continued shortfall in testing and contact tracing, making it harder to monitor and control the spread of the virus.

Britain, too, has had problems with its track and trace system, and Mr. Johnson has been criticized for his handling of the crisis. Britain was slow to impose lockdowns or quarantine travelers; it eventually did both, but by late April it had the worst outbreak in western Europe.

Earlier this month, with infections down sharply across the continent, Britain eased its rules, allowing people in dozens of countries, including Spain, to travel to England with no restrictions, though travelers from the United States are still required to observe the quarantine.

That let thousands of Britons salvage summer vacation plans — or so they thought. According to British news media reports, Mr. Shapps had only recently arrived in Spain when he learned about the decision to reimpose a quarantine.

According to Mr. Raab, who said he spoke to Mr. Shapps on Saturday, the transport secretary reacted philosophically to the move and agreed on the need for measures to protect the country.

“I think it shows you that there are risks for everyone,” Mr. Raab said.

Stephen Castle reported from London, and Raphael Minder from Madrid.

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