The UK travel industry has described as “confusing” Malta’s surprise decision to ban all visitors unless they are double vaccinated, a development that has raised fears that other European countries will follow suit as the Delta variant continues its rapid advance across the continent.
Chris Fearne, health minister of the Mediterranean island nation, presented its unexpected decision this weekend as a “selling point” for tourists who wanted to feel safe.
But the British travel sector, which is still buoyant after Thursday’s announcement that double-jabbed travellers would not have to quarantine when returning from amber list destinations, said it remained hopeful that Malta’s stance will be a one-off.
“It is rather confusing for customers because as well as our own requirements there are [other] countries themselves and their views,” said a spokesperson for the Association of British Travel Agents (Abta).
Malta’s move comes as a number of countries experience a surge in infections driven by the more contagious Delta strain, with the number of new daily cases in the tourist hotspots of Spain, Greece and Portugal all rising faster or broadly at the same rate as in the UK.
Despite this, Abta is confident that popular European destinations will remain open.
“Nobody’s got a crystal ball but countries such as Spain and Greece are very keen on letting British holidaymakers back.
“Generally, throughout Europe, they are very keen to welcome back British holidaymakers, particularly if they’ve been double vaccinated,” said the spokesperson.
Even so, tensions have been running high, with the desperation to go on holiday for some prompting unsavoury reports from Covid-19 vaccinators.
Instances of abuse, threats and aggression from people demanding their second jab early so they can travel have been recorded by doctors. In one incident, vaccination staff called the police after becoming concerned for their safety.
Malta’s decision – which comes into effect from Wednesday – bans people aged 12 and above if they have not had both doses of a coronavirus vaccine. In effect, the island’s criteria is a travel ban for children aged 12 to 18, as the UK is not vaccinating children.
Children aged five to 11 can travel when accompanying their fully vaccinated parents or guardians as long as they show evidence of a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours before arrival.
In the past fortnight, daily infections in Spain and Greece have more than quadrupled, from rolling seven-day averages of 76 and 35 per million respectively to 316 and 149, while cases in Portugal have doubled from 120 to 253, according to OurWorldinData.
France, marginally behind the curve, has seen infections rise from 29 to 49 per million. Germany though, remains relatively stable at about nine daily infections per million.
France’s Europe minister, Clément Beaune, last week warned residents to avoid holidaying in Spain and Portugal unless they had already booked, saying it was “better to remain in France or go to other countries”.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, is due to make a televised address to the nation tomorrow evening in which he is widely expected to announce new measures, possibly including mandatory vaccinations for health workers.
Stricter measures across Europe appear inevitable as governments try to contain the further spread of the virus, with tighter entry restrictions likely – especially in northern countries whose economies are not particularly reliant on tourism.
Last month, when infections in the UK were rising significantly faster than elsewhere in western Europe, the Germany chancellor, Angela Merkel, tried to secure an EU-wide ban on travellers from the UK but failed in the face of opposition from southern countries.
With UK holidaymakers alone worth nearly €500m a week to the Spanish economy in high season, tourism-dependent countries will seek to resist for as long as possible any fresh northern pressure for EU-wide entry restrictions.
Barely a week after the introduction of the EU’s digital green certificate allowing fully vaccinated, immune or tested passengers to travel freely within the bloc, tighter national restrictions on bars, restaurants and nightlife in many countries look almost inevitable – and new travel restrictions cannot be ruled out.