LONDON/CALAIS, France (Reuters) – British travellers rushed home from summer holidays in France on Friday, booking planes, trains, boats and even private jets to get home before a 14-day quarantine comes into force in response to rising coronavirus infections there.
The government announced late on Thursday that it would impose a quarantine from 0300 GMT on Saturday on arrivals from France, giving an estimated 160,000 UK holidaymakers there just over 24 hours to get home or face self-isolation on return.
The sudden rule change dealt a fresh blow to tourists, airlines and tour operators. The pandemic has left many travel groups cash-strapped and fighting for survival.
Many British tourists headed towards the French port of Calais hoping to catch a ferry or a shuttle train home in time.
“We’ve changed our plans when we heard the news last night. We decided to head back home a day early to miss the quarantine,” one British woman at a service station on the motorway to Calais said after her week in southern France.
Queues of cars built up in Calais through Friday afternoon. Ferry companies were adding extra crossings to help more people get home, Jean-Marc Puissesseau, head of the Port of Calais, told Reuters.
Private Fly, a British-based jet provider, said it had seen three times the normal number of enquiries and bookings.
The new quarantine rules apply to France, the second-most popular holiday destination for Britons, as well as to the Netherlands and the Mediterranean island of Malta.
Spain, Britons’ favourite holiday destination, came under British government quarantine rules on July 26.
“We’ve also had a number of enquiries from clients booked to travel to these destinations in the coming weeks to change their travel plans in order to avoid quarantine zones,” PrivateFly CEO Adam Twidell said.
France warned it would reciprocate, dealing a further blow to airlines’ hopes of an August recovery given they may have to cancel yet more flights.
Airline and travel shares tumbled. British Airways-owner IAG was down 6% and easyJet, which said it would operate its full schedule for the coming days, fell 7%.
When Europe first went into lockdown in March, Britain was criticised for not restricting arrivals from abroad. But since June, it has introduced strict quarantine rules for arrivals from countries with infection rates above a certain level.
This contrasts with an easing of rules at home, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ordered the gradual reopening of the economy to resume, weeks after pausing it.
Transport minister Grant Shapps said the government needed to balance the need to open the economy and to contain the virus. The UK recorded 1,441 COVID-19 cases, the highest daily tally since June 14, official data showed on Friday.
Shapps told BBC Radio he sympathised with travellers but that they should not be entirely surprised, given the fluid situation around the pandemic.
“Where we see countries breach a certain level of cases … then we have no real choice but to act,” he told Sky News.
Airlines UK, an industry body representing BA, easyJet and Ryanair, called on Britain to implement more targeted quarantines on the regions with the highest infection rates and to bring in a testing regime.
An EU study showed that imported cases of COVID typically only account for a small share of infections when a pandemic is at its peak, but are more significant once a country has the disease under control.