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By sea, rail or by air, Brits scramble to get out of France

UPDATED: Fri., Aug. 14, 2020

By Pan Pylas and Sylvie Corbet Associated Press

LONDON — Cars lined up at ports while trains and planes filled out fast as British tourists scurried to get out of France on Friday before a deadline that would require them to quarantine at home for two weeks.

Families cut summer vacations short and other travelers made hasty plans to return to the U.K. by whatever means possible before the 4 a.m. Saturday deadline. Eurostar trains between Paris and London and airport lounges that were almost empty earlier in the coronavirus pandemic filled with passengers. Those with more means opted for private jets.

The exodus was prompted by the British government’s decision late Thursday to take France off a list of nations exempt from traveler quarantine requirements because of a sharp rise there in new virus infections. For those who cannot work from home on their return, the mandatory self-quarantine could see them penalized financially.

The U.K. move has the potential to upend the plans of those planning trips in the days ahead, particularly of families during the run-up to schools reopening in September. French businesses running campsites in Brittany, wine-tasting tours in the Loire Valley or mountain treks in the Alps also have reason to worry.

The French government has indicated it will respond in kind to Britain’s decision, further hobbling travel and tourism at a time when the industry is trying to recover from the economic shock of the 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 confirmed coronavirus cases in France in the past week. The Netherlands, Malta, Monaco and the Caribbean islands of Aruba and Turks & Caicos were also added to the U.K.’s quarantine list for the same reason.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the decision shouldn’t have been a big surprise since the government had consistently said it would monitor infection rates when assessing its list of safe countries.

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

The decision means returnees from the two most popular European summer holiday destinations for British tourists face quarantining. Last month, Spain, the number one destination, was taken off the exempt list.

Dr. Michael Head, a global health specialist at the University of Southampton, said the quarantine rules are appropriate given that many of the U.K.’s virus-related deaths were due to cases imported from abroad.

“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.

Given the short warning, most British vacationers already in France, thought to number up to half a million, will stay abroad. But those that want to get back will find it tough.

Eurostar, which operates high-speed passenger trains linking London and Paris, said it had limited availability remaining Friday. And Getlink, which operates the Channel Tunnel car-carrying rail service between Britain and France, said all trains set to arrive back in the U.K. before the quarantine comes into force are full — even after it increased capacity.

Ferry companies added extra services, too, but they filled up fast.

DFDS scheduled four extra departures from France’s port of Calais to “help repatriate customers” and insisted all travelers book before arriving at the port.

P&O also warned customers it was “expecting large queues for tourist passenger traffic in Calais” and that its “sailings are already very busy this weekend with no additional capacity.”

Others are being more extravagant. 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.

Though the U.K. has the highest official coronavirus death toll in Europe and the fifth-highest in the world, with almost 47,000 people having died after testing positive for COVID-19, its rates of infections are considered to be lower than many other European countries.

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.”

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 Netherlands won’t be taking retaliatory action, though.

“If a country decides for its own internal reasons that it doesn’t want Dutch people, we’re not going to hit back,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said at his post-Cabinet meeting press conference Friday.

The U.K.’s quarantine approach has been criticized by many companies, including London’s Heathrow Airport, which is urging the government to ramp up testing of all arrivals in the country. The government has said that it is no “silver bullet.”

As people headed back to the U.K., there was a general understanding of why the quarantine was put in place.

“I think all countries need to take strong action to prevent the spread of the COVID virus,” said Eric Livingstone, who was heading back to the U.K. from Calais. “It’s unpleasant, it’s very inconvenient, it’s expensive but it’s necessary, I’m afraid.”

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