Boris Johnson on Thursday night dealt a blow to the holiday plans of hundreds of thousands of Britons when he ordered that France be added to Britain’s quarantine list from Saturday.
The move is expected to trigger a stampede by British holidaymakers in France for Channel ports and Eurostar services before the new quarantine restrictions take effect at 4am on Saturday.
Travellers arriving from the Netherlands, Monaco, Turks & Caicos and Aruba will also have to self-isolate for 14 days, in a move announced by Downing Street just before 10pm on Thursday.
France has indicated that it would retaliate by ordering a voluntary quarantine regime for Britons arriving in France, confirming that Covid-19 will have a serious impact on travel between the two countries.
Travel industry companies were among the worst performers across European markets on Friday in reaction. Shares in Tui, easyJet and British Airways’ parent International Airlines Group fell more than 6 per cent, while those in Ryanair dropped 5 per cent.
Europe’s Stoxx 600 index fell 1.8 per cent in morning dealings, with the CAC 40 in Paris down 2.2 per cent and London’s FTSE 100 off 2.3 per cent.
Strategists said the UK decision added to concerns that the recent rise in cases across Europe would snuff out the still-fragile economic recovery.
Grant Shapps, transport secretary, said he expected 160,000 British holidaymakers returning from France would be affected by the new quarantine rules.
He also suggested that any country recording above 20 cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day period could trigger the introduction of quarantine measures.
“With France and these other countries, Netherlands and elsewhere, the numbers have now just gone above the threshold, which is about 20 cases per 100,000, but measured on a seven-day rolling average,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Mr Shapps insisted that travellers were aware of the risks of travelling over the summer and dismissed calls for those now unable to return to work to receive compensation.
“People this year will have gone away knowing that there was a significant risk, and because of that people will have gone with their eyes open,” he said.
On Wednesday, the mood in Whitehall was that France would only be put on a “watch list”, but that changed on Thursday as new coronavirus data arrived from Paris.
Whitehall officials say the decision to move swiftly was also driven in part by demands from the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for immediate action.
Data from France over the past week have shown a 66 per cent increase in newly reported cases and a 52 per cent increase in the weekly incidence rate per 100,000 population.
On a visit to Northern Ireland earlier on Thursday, Mr Johnson said: “We have got to be absolutely ruthless about this, even with our closest and dearest friends and partners. I think everybody understands that.
“We will be looking at the data a bit later on this afternoon — looking exactly where France and other countries are getting to.”
The number of daily infections confirmed by tests in France was 2,669 in the past 24 hours — the fourth time in a week that it had exceeded 2,000 — setting a new post-lockdown record.
The country’s cumulative total of cases now stands at 209,365 and the seven-day rolling average of new infections has increased to 1,962, a level not seen since the end of April.
“We can’t be remotely complacent about our own situation,” Mr Johnson said. “Everybody understands that in a pandemic you don’t allow our population to be reinfected or the disease to come back in.
“That is why the quarantine measures are very important and we have to apply them in a very strict way.”
France’s cumulative 14-day total of Covid-19 cases stands at 32.1 per 100,000; in the Netherlands that figure is 40.2 and Malta 74.8. The UK’s figure by comparison is 18.5.
Britain’s quarantine rules require anyone travelling to Britain from a “non-exempt” country — those designated as having higher Covid-19 rates — to self-isolate for 14 days.
The Foreign Office has also updated its travel advice to advise against all but essential travel to France, Monaco, the Netherlands, Malta, Turks & Caicos and Aruba.
Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, called the move “another devastating blow to the travel industry” and urged the government to use airport testing and a more targeted “subnational approach” to avoid the repeated introduction of national quarantine restrictions.
Mr Shapps warned Britons would be “breaking the law” if they fail to quarantine for 14 days on their return.
“You may well find that people call up to check where you are, and you’ll be breaking the law if you were not quarantining,” he told BBC Breakfast on Friday morning.
“We’ve worked so hard in this country to get our level of infections down, the last thing we want do is to have people returning and bringing the infection with them. It’s to protect everybody,” he said.