Pain in Spain as travellers' holiday plans up in air after country put on quarantine list
The holiday plans of families across Northern Ireland have been thrown into chaos after Spain was dropped from the so-called green list.
Holidaymakers at resorts across Spain and the Balearic and Canary Islands now face 14 days of self-isolation after returning home.
Meanwhile, people with holidays booked in mainland Spain and islands including Tenerife and Majorca in the coming weeks may now lose thousands of pounds as a result of the dramatic U-turn.
The Department of Health announced the updated position on Saturday evening and it came into force just hours later.
There are also fears that France and Germany could join Spain on the quarantine list after recent spikes there.
Health Minister Robin Swann last night said that even those travellers who test negative for Covid-19 immediately after returning home must self-isolate, as they could still be infected. He called for the Executive to meet to discuss the matter.
The removal of Spain from the list of countries exempt from the strict 14-day quarantine period has been described as the "latest nightmare" by a travel agent.
Coleraine-based Briege McAuley from independent travel company Travel Counsellors warned anyone planning on visiting Spain to check with their insurer before leaving.
It comes after the Association of British Insurers (ABI) said it is "likely" that travel insurance will remain in place for holidaymakers already in Spain until they return home. However, those attempting to travel to countries against official advice would invalidate their travel insurance.
The ABI said people who booked a trip or took out travel insurance after Covid-19 was declared a pandemic may not be covered for travel disruption or cancellation.
In either circumstance, travellers should check with their insurer, said Ms McAuley.
"This is the latest nightmare for holidaymakers and for our industry," she said.
"There really was no clue that this was going to happen, the first we knew about it was when it was announced on the news on Saturday evening.
"To be honest, I have been advising customers against booking anything this year because everything is so uncertain, I've actually been turning business away."
Ms McAuley said she hopes the development will not further damage the already fragile industry. She recommended that anyone planning on booking a holiday for the coming months and even next year uses a travel agent to ensure they are protected in the event of companies going bust.
Fiona Dalzell, a Travel Counsellors travel agent based in Maghaberry, Co Antrim, said: "It's the last thing the industry needed. I think we're the only industry that has been working through all of this and we're now having to hand money back.
"I'm just thankful that a lot of my customers had already decided to rebook for 2021. I do think because of the speed at which the decision has been made, the official websites have been quite slow to update with information, so a lot of people have spent today on the phone trying to speak to their travel provider.
"Different companies are dealing with it differently too. For example, TUI were happy to change a booking to mainland Spain or the islands free of charge for anyone travelling up to August 9.
"However, Jet2 were only changing bookings free of charge for holidays to mainland Spain.
"Of course the situation is changing so quickly, so that might change. I would also advise anyone thinking of travelling to check their insurance policy first. If your insurance is void then it means that if something happens, even if it isn't related to Covid, if it is a broken arm, then you will have to pay.
"A lot of people might not realise their insurance is void because flights are still going."
There was growing uncertainty last night over the impact of the situation on travellers.
No explanation has been provided over why the Balearic and Canary Islands have been removed from the green list despite the fact they have not seen a spike in cases. It is also not known how the 14-day isolation period will be enforced.
There has also been criticism at the speed at which the change in policy was enforced from the point at which it was announced.
However, Mr Swann said the countries covered by quarantine regulations are kept under continual review and are liable to change.
"There is no ideal time to make such a decision. A phased introduction would not have made sense. Public health considerations must take priority," he said.
"The decision was taken after consideration of the latest data. Covid-19 prevalence in Spain has increased in recent weeks - a trend which accelerated rapidly in the latter half of the past week. I appreciate that people returning from Spain and its islands will now be faced with an unexpected period of quarantining.
"I will be requesting a meeting of the Executive to consider what support or advice measures may be needed for employees, employers and the self-employed, and what other actions may be needed.
"The advice from the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser is that a negative Covid-19 test immediately on return from Spain would not exclude infection - so a period of self-isolation would still be required. It has to be reiterated that Saturday night's decision was not taken lightly."
A Co Antrim couple due to fly out to Spain yesterday had to cancel their holiday at the 11th hour after the country was removed from the quarantine exemption list at short notice.
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When Health Minister Robin Swann added Northern Ireland to the new quarantine rush job on Saturday night, he will not only have dismayed the many hundreds of local holidaymakers, whose present and future travel plans have been thrown into disarray, but also the hundreds of thousands involved in and dependent on the Spanish tourism industry.