Richard Barfield reports on his recent trip to Spain, amid the UK Government’s Europe quarantine panic over COVID-19

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The first warning came on Twitter about two hours before the official announcement: that travellers returning to the UK from Spain after midnight on Saturday 25 July would have to self-isolate for two weeks.

On the previous Wednesday, we had driven to Heathrow for our British Airways flight to Bilbao. We were looking forward to spending a week with our son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. Terminal 5 felt very empty which inspired confidence, as did the near 100% usage of face masks at the airport. Short queues meant a refreshingly easy passage through security.

Any concerns about being on a full plane were allayed by orderly row-by-row boarding, taking off on time and a pervasive sense of calm among passengers and crew. The pilot had a cheerful routine – talking about setting out south over the Atlantic and doing his best to find the Iberian Peninsula.

Forty-eight hours before leaving the UK, we each had had to complete a Spanish Travel Health form, using an online, user-friendly app. As expected, the form includes questions about your health, recent hospital visits and whether you have been in contact with anyone with COVID-19 or have symptoms. As I had visited a hospital in the past 14 days, it advised me not to travel, but gave me a QR code to carry on my phone.

On arrival, at the health checkpoint after passport control, a masked official scanned the QR code and said “you must come with me”. He walked me quickly to see a doctor who took my temperature by infra-red and asked why I had visited the hospital. I explained it was for my left eye and that I did not have a fever or cough. Thankfully, he waved me through.

In Spain, two things hit me: the COVID-19 response seems well-organised and almost everyone wears a mask.

The next morning, outside the cathedral in Logrono, empty café tables were clearly marked as clean and ready for use, with others carrying or ‘do not use’ signs. Even the beggar who asked us for change wore a mask.

Later, at a nearby tapas bar, with open door and windows, there were QR codes on the tables for the menus (to minimise contact) and sanitiser available at the counter. The bar displayed an official sign saying it had been approved as COVID-19 secure. Masks off for eating and drinking, but on again when paying the bill.

Photo Courtesy of Richard Barfield 

Laissez Faire Little Britain

The Spanish approach to COVID-19 is not perfect but seems consistent, disciplined and well-communicated – much more so than the laissez faire approach in the UK.

Admittedly, the strong likelihood of fines probably tends to concentrate minds (€100 for not wearing a mask, but much more for serious breaches). Given the severity of Spain’s earlier lockdown and with most people living in flats, there’s little appetite for it to return.

That night, the television news included reports and data from all the provinces, discussions on local trends and interviews with contact-tracers as they did their jobs. This seemed refreshingly open compared to the random and often data-light news in the UK. There was a strong message that, although cases might be increasing in some areas, deaths remain low and action is being taken to trace and suppress local outbreaks.

COVID-19 statistics at 3 AugustSpainUK
Confirmed cases288,522306,319
Deaths per million population609695
Daily increase in deaths 2202
Daily increase in cases (31 July)3,100883
Sources: John Hopkins University of Medicine and Statista

In this reassuring environment, it seemed bizarre to learn of the UK Government’s decision to impose 14-day self-isolation at a few hours’ notice. The decision followed other European countries’ steps to tighten travel conditions for Spain, but the short notice felt like panic.

We completed the Home Office’s clunky online form (each form has to be started from scratch, even for members of the same household, or if you make an error). The three-page form asks no questions about your health. Indeed, coming through passport control on our return was a bit too painless: a straightforward passport and facial scan (mask off) and the barrier opened. Unlike Spain, there was no secondary health-control point, which felt odd.

The Home Office aims to follow-up with one in five travellers after they have arrived, which happened to include my wife. The caller, reading from a simple script, asked her to confirm a few details on the form, whether she knew she needed to self-isolate for 14 days, and if she was aware of the main symptoms of COVID-19. There were no questions about her current health. It seems that the Government treats this aspect of COVID-19 as an immigration issue, not a health one.

While we are going through what feels like house arrest, our dog is enjoying an extra vacation at the kennels (as we can’t take her for walks). It’s an annoying additional cost but a small sum compared to what others are paying either through enforced unpaid leave in the UK or no-shows causing bars and restaurants to fail in Spain.

For us, the long-awaited family week was well worth the trouble (touch wood). For those of you who don’t like crowds, it’s a great time to be a careful tourist. Based on our short trip, and despite the recent increase in cases, Spain seemed – overall – to be a safer option than the UK, which has the dubious honour of being the COVID-19 champion of Europe. 


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