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1 August 2020

The Spanish Main

Tag(s): Foreign Affairs, Politics & Economics, Business
First, let me declare an interest. Both our children live in Spain; our son in Madrid with his partner and young children and our daughter in Denia in the Valencia region with her husband and their little boy. We were in Madrid in the first week of March and got back just in time to beat the lockdown, first in Madrid and then in the UK. We were due to go to Denia in April to celebrate various birthdays but those flights were cancelled. We have only just received the refund. We were due again to go in July and those flights were not cancelled but were altered in such a way that they were not convenient so we’ve had to accept a voucher. We are due to go back there in September but with the latest news this may now be in doubt.

As the government continues to stumble its way through the pandemic one constant is inconsistency. In three consecutive days the government made three different statements about Spain. In the end they announced on Saturday with six hours’ notice that all travellers from Spain to the United Kingdom would have to go into quarantine for 14 days. It’s a relatively short time since air corridors were built with 63 countries and even then there was some inconsistency in the way that decisions were made. But at least once those decisions were made travellers thought they knew what’s going to happen and many of them would have booked holidays in Spain and now face considerable uncertainty. For my wife and I who are no longer in full-time work with a decent size house and garden 14 days of quarantine is not particularly difficult to cope with. But for many it could be devastating, possibly threatening their work and very difficult to manage in limited accommodation.

The government has explained that it has taken Spain off the list because they fear that there is a second wave of the virus in Spain. This is not borne out by the facts. There is tremendous variation in the rates of transmission of coronavirus in Spain by region. As of July 23 for every 100,000 people the highest rate of infection was in La Rioja with 1315; in Catalonia which has got the headlines it was 936 but in the region of Valencia which is where my daughter lives it was just 245. Compare that with the rates of transmission of coronavirus in the UK. In England it was 463, nearly double that of Valencia; in Northern Ireland it was 314; Scotland 341 and in Wales 547. These rates are comparable with several regions in Spain. It is true that in north-east Spain there has been a higher rate; largely it would seem because of the behaviour of young people. It probably means there’s not been much change in the rate of admissions to hospitals. The government made the same mistake in forcing Leicester to go back into lockdown. It was true that there was an increase in the rates of infection among people tested in the community but that was almost certainly due to an increase in the rate of testing. Meanwhile there was no increase at all in the rate of admissions to hospital in Leicester.

Many people have asked why the government could not apply this decision by region and indeed in the House of Lords which of course was still sitting the Minister of Transport said that was something they might look at. At the same time the Foreign Office has excluded the Portuguese islands of Madeira and the Azores from the decision not to have an air bridge with Portugal. So why is it possible to do this with Portugal but not with Spain? And if David Frost does manage to negotiate a reasonable trade deal with Michel Barnier I think we can expect Spain and Portugal to veto it in retaliation for the damage these arbitrary decisions have done to their economies.

This kind of inconsistency and indeed contradiction has been plaguing the government’s handling of the crisis from the beginning. There have been so many U-turns, always explained by the statement that they are following the science, which I have demonstrated on these pages is simply not the case.

The Prime Minister in his statement on the matter said that he was very concerned that a second wave was developing all across  Europe but again this is not borne out by the facts. If one looks at the seven day rolling average of new cases by continent you find that in Asia it is accelerating; in North America it continues to accelerate at a faster rate; in Latin America and the Caribbean it continues to accelerate at a faster rate but in Europe it is declining or at least flat as it is in the Middle East.

Now all of these numbers, even if they are provided by the World Health Organisation, have to be taken with a pinch of salt. It is clear that different countries collect the statistics in different ways and many countries are severely underreporting them. The UK has one of the highest death rates per million in the world but in the UK it may well be that we are over reporting the number of deaths. I was shocked to learn that the number of reported deaths in the UK includes deaths of people who have tested positive for coronavirus, recovered from it and then died from some other cause such as a heart attack or even a road accident.

Comparisons between different countries are also invidious. I despair that the newspapers continue to describe the gross number of deaths in the country without also looking at the rate per population. The Times, which is my daily newspaper, publishes a daily league table with the United States at the top, Brazil second and the UK third in terms of the gross number of deaths. But when looked at by head of population the US should not be top, based on the numbers it would be Belgium. But then as I said we know that the numbers are wrong.

The consequences of this will not just be inconvenience for a number of people. It will cast a giant shadow over the whole business of international travel for the foreseeable future. I think the vast majority of the population will be thinking that it is too high a risk to book a foreign visit when the government can act so irrationally and without any warning. The cost to the travel business in all its forms will be devastating. This is not a tap that you can turn on and off. Business depends on confidence and the confidence has been shattered.

Consider the position of Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for Transport. Not long ago when asked a question on the Today programme his answer was “Put it this way, I won’t be booking a foreign holiday this year”. But on Saturday, the day the government made the announcement about Spain, Mr. Shapps flew to Spain with his family for a two-week holiday. It turned out that he was part of the decision-making process and that the night before he’d been told there was a 50-50 chance that the quarantine would be introduced. He returned to the UK this week leaving his wife and children on their holiday and placed himself in quarantine for the 14 day period. It beggars belief. Except that I think the government were criticised so much for their delays in dealing with the crisis that they have resolved to take a different approach by being quick and decisive. But this only works if your decisions are good.

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office advice is that all but essential international travel is not advised but that there are these 63, now 62 countries, exempt from this advice. The list can be found on their website. What is essential? I have asked that before in a previous blog[i] and believe that the government should have been very much better prepared for this crisis which was inevitable and part of that preparation would be to define what is essential and keep it under review on a regular basis.

In my own humble opinion visiting our children and grandchildren in Spain is one of the most essential things in our lives.

[i]  Who or What is Essential? 23 May 2020

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