Brits scrambling home from France after quarantine move

Passengers wait next to the Eurostar Terminal at the Gare du Nord train station in Paris, Friday, Aug. 14, 2020. British holidaymakers in France were mulling whether to return home early Friday to avoid having to self-isolate for 14 days following the U.K. government's decision to reimpose quarantine restrictions on France amid a recent pick-up in coronavirus infections. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

LONDON — British holidaymakers in France were scrambling to return home Friday to avoid having to self-isolate for 14 days following the U.K. government’s decision to reimpose quarantine restrictions on France amid a recent pick-up in coronavirus infections.

The British government announced late Thursday that it was taking France off the list of nations exempt from quarantine requirements, a move that potentially leaves the plans of hundreds of thousands of holidaymakers, as well as those planning to cross the English Channel soon, in disarray.

The French government has indicated that it will respond in kind, which would further hobble travel and tourism at a time when the industry is trying to recover from the economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic.

Philip Alston, who was looking after three cats for a French couple in Paris, made the decision — albeit reluctantly — to return to the U.K.

“Fortunately, they said in the case of this happening, they had a stand-by helper,” he said at the Gare du Nord station in Paris ahead of boarding a Eurostar train to London. “So I’m really upset because I was having a good time looking after the cats and exploring Paris.”

The British government insists it had to make the decision in light of a 66% spike in coronavirus infections in France in the past week. The Netherlands, Malta, Monaco and the Caribbean islands of Aruba and Turks & Caicos have also been added to the quarantine list for the same reason.

The quarantine requirement will apply to anyone returning to the U.K. after 4 a.m. local time on Saturday, a timeframe that has prompted many to try to return before then.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the decision shouldn’t have come as a big surprise given that the government has consistently said it will monitor infection rates when assessing its list of safe countries. Of the major Mediterranean destinations, only Greece, Italy and Turkey, are still deemed safe.

“Unfortunately, this virus doesn’t play ball,” he told Sky News.

Any rush back is likely to be most prominent in France, the second-most popular holiday destination for British tourists after Spain, which was put on the quarantine list last month. Travel companies are urging anyone considering a swift return home to check whether they will be able to do so.

Firas Kilin, a traveler from London, was quick off the mark as he readied to board a train to London.

“I was supposed to come back tomorrow evening but then after the announcement yesterday, I decided to move it to today and yeah, it cost me 105 pounds to change my ticket, and my kids’ tickets,” he said.

Anyone seeking to return by train will see their options limited. Eurostar, which operates the passenger trains linking London and Paris, said it has availability on only two of its services running Friday afternoon. And Getlink, which operates the Channel Tunnel car-carrying rail service linking Britain and France, says it has no more spaces for anyone seeking to get back to the U.K. before the quarantine measures come into force — even after increasing capacity.

In the French ports of Dunkirk and Calais, many British travelers were lining up in their cars to take the ferries crossing the Channel to Britain.

DFDS ferry services tweeted that they added an additional four extra departures from Calais to “help repatriate customers.” All travelers must make bookings before arriving at the port.

The P & O company warned customers on Twitter they were “expecting large queues for tourist passenger traffic in Calais” and that “our sailings are already very busy this weekend with no additional capacity.”

Some are taking exceptional measures to return. Private jet charter company PrivateFly said demand for flights out of the countries removed from the safe list has trebled since the announcement was made.

While the number of new infections in Britain is also rising, they are not thought to be increasing at the same pace as in the countries added to the quarantine list.

In France, there’s a growing fear of a second spike of the outbreak, and on Friday the head of the country’s national health service said Paris and Marseille, have been declared at-risk zones. Jérôme Salomon said on France Inter radio that “the situation is deteriorating from week to week.”

Dr. Michael Head, a global health specialist at the University of Southampton, said the U.K.’s quarantine rules are appropriate given that many of the country’s virus-related deaths were due to importing cases from abroad. The U.K. has the highest official coronavirus death toll in Europe, with almost 47,000 people dying after testing positive for the virus.

“That is a risk when booking a holiday or travel abroad right now, and this will remain a risk for some time to come,” he said.

The quarantine decision is a big blow to France’s tourism industry, which is heavily reliant on travelers from Britain. At this time of year, campsites in Normandy, wine-tasting tours in the Loire Valley and treks in the Alps are widely populated by British families on their traditional summer breaks.

France’s junior minister for European affairs, Clement Beaune, voiced his regret and said it will “prompt a retaliatory measure, in the hope of getting back to normal as soon as possible.”

The Dutch foreign ministry also updated its travel advisory for the U.K. and is now recommending people to only travel to the country if necessary. However, those returning to the Netherlands will not have to quarantine.

The U.K.’s quarantine approach has been criticized by many companies, including London’s Heathrow Airport, which is urging the government to instead ramp up testing of all arrivals in the country.

Following the decision, many travel stocks were down sharply.