Greece’s tourism minister has said the UK government should review its decision to quarantine people travelling from seven of the country’s most popular islands, labelling the move “unfortunate and unfair”.
Harry Theoharis said infection levels in Greece remained below the UK’s threshold for taking countries off its exemption list.
“From the point of view of headline numbers, it’s a decision that is unfortunate and unfair,” he told the Guardian. “There have been 13 cases per 100,000 people in the last seven days in Greece, which is below other countries and below the UK’s own self-imposed yardstick. We are very much hoping it will be reviewed as soon as possible.”
Until this week countries had been removed from the UK’s quarantine exemption list when Covid-19 infection rates exceeded 20 people per 100,000 citizens for a period of seven days.
But taking a new regional approach to quarantine policy, Britain’s transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said on Monday that increased coronavirus caseloads on Greek islands posed a risk to public health in the UK.
The seven islands singled out were Zakynthos (Zante), Santorini, Mykonos, Crete, Lesbos, Serifos and Tinos. The Greek mainland was not removed from the exemption list.
More British holidaymakers flew to Greece in August than any other nationality, with 315,840 arrivals at the country’s 14 regional airports, according to Fraport Greece.
About 60,000 Britons were said to be holidaying on the islands when Shapps announced the decision in the Commons, triggering a panicked rush for increasingly costly air tickets back to the UK before the measure came into force at 4am on Wednesday.
With coronavirus cases once again rising dangerously in Britain, departing tourists told Greek TV they were infuriated at having to cut holidays short. “We feel we are going from a safe area to a place that is much less safe,” one man complained as he stood in front of an airport check-in desk.
Theoharis rejected claims that Greece was not being transparent with its data and was deliberately keeping the real number of cases on its islands artificially low under pressure from the tourism industry. “It’s just not true,” he said. “We have a policy of full transparency and cooperate with each and every country, handing them data whenever it is requested.”
Although still relatively low compared to other EU states, case numbers in Greece have increased alarmingly. By Tuesday, health officials had recorded a total of 11,832 cases and 290 deaths.
But the tourism minister insisted Greece had tackled the rise head-on, taking “some very difficult decisions irrespective of the economic cost”.
He said: “The numbers are now on a downwards slide. We feel we have done the best we can and certainly more than any other country to keep citizens safe. Our priority, always, is health first and I think the UK has recognised that we are doing our best, otherwise they would have blanket-blocked us, applying the [new quarantine] rule to all of Greece.”
The Welsh government removed several Greek islands from its quarantine exemption list last week and a further three on Tuesday. Scotland announced restrictions on travellers from all parts of the country last week, adding to the pressure London had faced to review its quarantine policies.
In the wake of Schapps’ announcement, easyJet, the UK’s biggest airline, said it would be cutting flights to the islands.
The diminishing arrivals from Britain are expected to hit the Greek economy hard. More than 3 million Britons visited last year, and UK tourists typically consume more while on holiday than visitors from any other country. Tourism accounts for 25% of Greek GDP and one in five jobs.
Greece’s centre-right administration has adopted strict epidemiological criteria in allowing tourists in. Asked whether Athens could take measures that might affect British tourists in light of rising infection rates in the UK, Theoharis said: “I cannot preclude any decision. I cannot say definitely that it won’t happen. It’s a decision for the health ministry to take but it’s a very dynamic situation and nothing can be ruled out.”