Spain's second virus wave swells, fuelling concern across Europe

MADRID (BLOOMBERG) – Spain is scrambling to stay ahead of new outbreaks of the coronavirus that prompted the UK to impose a quarantine on travellers returning from the country, dealing a new blow to its tourism-dependent economy.

Only weeks after the UK included Spain on a list of countries safe for summer holidays, the government reversed course and announced late on Saturday (July 25) it would impose a 14-day quarantine on anyone arriving from Spain.

The move came after cases in the country jumped, particularly in the Catalonia region, where the authorities are racing to stamp out new outbreaks.

Norway on Friday announced a 10-day quarantine for people returning from Spain, and France issued new travel warnings for the Catalonia region, which is home to Barcelona and popular beaches.

The moves will further weigh on bookings in the peak travel period for a country that depends on tourism for more than 10 per cent of gross domestic product.

Catalonia, in north-eastern Spain, is at the epicentre of a new jump in cases and has been expanding restrictions to try to flatten the curve.

In Barcelona, nightclubs have been ordered shut for two weeks and imposed there is a midnight curfew on bars.

A partial lockdown affecting 200,000 people has been already imposed in the western district of Segria.

The World Travel and Tourism Council called the UK decision a “bitter blow” for travellers and said local lockdowns, not broader travel restrictions, would be a better solution.

TUI, the UK’s biggest tour operator, suspended all its flights from Spain and the Canary Islands that were due to leave today, Sky News reported.

“Painting an entire country with the same brush does not benefit anyone. While we understand the concern about destinations like Spain with new Covid-19 cases, the majority of the country and its islands, which are incredibly popular holiday destinations, have less cases than the UK,” the tourism group said in an emailed statement.

Spain was one of the hardest-hit countries in Europe by the coronavirus and has already suffered more than 28,000 fatalities, the fourth-highest tally in Europe after the UK, Italy and France.

A national lockdown started in March had largely tamed the spread of Covid-19, but the easing of those restrictions and the start of the summer tourism season has contributed to an uptick, particularly among young people frequenting crowded bars and clubs.

Countries around the Mediterranean Sea were praying that a glimpse of tourism would get them through the summer before the cold snap drives people indoors and ushers in a second chapter to the pandemic.

Now, it appears the spread of the virus may not wait for the winter months.

Governments across the globe have been bracing themselves for a second wave, though there is little appetite for reimposing large-scale lockdowns on already crippled economies.

The hope is that localising quarantines to towns, cities and regions will be enough to snuff out bouts of infections as they come.

Italy was the first Western democracy to quarantine the entire population as it became apparent its death toll was going to overtake that of China, where the virus originated.

A person close to Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte described that decision as “shock therapy” that can’t be repeated.

The euro’s weakest economy this week became the biggest beneficiary of the European Union’s US$860 billion (S$1.18 trillion) rescue package.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was initially reluctant to order a lockdown and then ended up in intensive care fighting for his life after contracting Covid-19.

Yet he finds the idea of isolating the nation again so off-putting that he compared it to a nuclear deterrent: “I certainly don’t want to use it.”

French Prime Minister Jean Castex, was equally blunt: “We won’t survive, economically and socially.”

At the other end of the globe, New Zealand’sMs  Jacinda Ardern has warned that it just takes one mistake to be exposed to the virus again.

But even for her, reverting to a nationwide lockdown would be a “measure of last resort”.

With the world facing its worst recession since the Great Depression and US President Donald Trump fighting for re-election in November, voters are on edge.

Politicians of all stripes are looking for ways to ease the pain-not add to it-as fear morphs into anger and discontent.

“Populations can be summoned to heroic acts of collective self-sacrifice for a while, but not forever,” political scientist Francis Fukuyama, author of “The End of History and the Last Man,” wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine.

“A lingering epidemic combined with deep job losses, a prolonged recession, and an unprecedented debt burden will inevitably create tensions that turn into a political backlash-but against whom is as yet unclear.”

RESTAURANTS and BARS

The political calculus is to try and it ride it out.

Yet while efforts to get people back to stores, restaurants, bars and hairdressers demonstrate the urgency among governments of reviving economies, they also show the risks.

Europe’s hardest-hit country, Britain, reopened pubs and is now finding spikes in virus cases.

Mr Johnson, who aims to return to “significant normality” by Christmas, on Friday said his government is preparing the health service for a second wave of infections over the winter.

Populations have already shown they are restless.

Spain had a similar trajectory to Italy and in Madrid the resentment spilled into the streets.

In Serbia, a jump in cases prompted President Aleksandar Vucic, just re-elected in a landslide, to try and impose another curfew only for him to reverse course in the face of violent protests.

The situation is so desperate in Croatia, which relies on tourism more than any other country in the EU, that it pivoted from lockdown mode to embracing the Swedish model that allows bars and shops to stay open and there is no limit to size of public gatherings.

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