The UK’s biggest tour operator, Tui, has suspended all flights from Spain and the Canary Islands scheduled to leave today.
Andrew Flintham, managing director of Tui UK and Ireland, made the announcement on Saturday evening hours before new rules came into force for UK travellers.
It comes after the government added Spain and the islands to its list of at-risk countries.
This means holidaymakers arriving back from Spain, the Canaries and the Balearic Islands face the prospect of isolating for two weeks from now.
Britons have been advised against all but essential travel to mainland Spain by the Foreign Office – though this part of the guidance does not apply to the Canaries and the Balearics.
While Tui has cancelled flights, easyJet and British Airways are planning to continue operating as normal.
Tui’s Mr Flintham assured passengers who are currently on holiday that they will be able to return on their intended flight home, while others would be contacted by Tui to arrange refunds or rebookings.
He said: “We’re incredibly disappointed that we didn’t get more notice of this announcement, or that this decision wasn’t made yesterday, as many Brits travel on holiday at the weekend.
“We also look to understand why quarantine has been issued for a whole country, including the Canary Islands and Balearic Islands, when the travel advice isn’t aligned (only applying to mainland Spain). It demonstrates why clear regional travel corridors need to be considered.
“The health and safety of our customers and colleagues is always our highest priority and welcome travel advice that protects those that holiday with us.
“However, the UK government must work closely with the travel industry as this level of uncertainty and confusion is damaging for business and disappointing for those looking forward to a well-deserved break.”
Other travel firms and consumer rights groups have also criticised the government over its move to suspend with little notice the so-called “travel corridor” with the UK’s most popular holiday destination.
Rory Boland, editor of consumer rights magazine Which? Travel, said: “Many holidaymakers will be deeply angry that the government didn’t make this decision 48 hours ago, before tens of thousands of them flew off for their summer holidays in Spain.
“Many would not have travelled if they had known they’d face 14 days of quarantine on their return.”
British Airways, which is continuing to operate flights, said the move was “throwing thousands of Britons’ travel plans into chaos”, adding: “This is sadly yet another blow for British holidaymakers and cannot fail to have an impact on an already troubled aviation industry.”
EasyJet also expressed its disappointment because “the increased occurrence of coronavirus is regional rather than nationwide”.
The airline said it planned to operate a full schedule “in the coming days”, adding that customers no longer wishing to travel could seek to transfer their flights without a fee or receive a voucher.
A spokesperson for the Association of British Travel Agents said: “ABTA has said consistently that protecting public health must be the priority at this time, and it is vital to base decisions about travel on the best health and scientific advice.
“We suggest the government considers lifting the quarantine rules for flights to and from certain regions with lower infection rates, or to places such as the Balearic Islands or the Canaries – which are geographically distinct from mainland Spain – to avoid further damage to the UK inbound and outbound tourism industries.”
But government sources said the “fast moving picture” regarding Spain’s coronavirus cases meant ministers had to act “immediately”.
A UK government spokesman said: “The Joint Biosecurity Centre together with Public Health England have updated their coronavirus assessments of Spain based on the latest data.
“As a result, Spain has been removed from the lists of countries from which passengers arriving in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are exempted from the need to self-isolate.
“Protecting public health is our absolute priority and we have taken this decision to limit any potential spread to the UK.
“We’ve always been clear that we would act immediately to remove a country where necessary.”
On Friday, Spain logged 922 infections, slightly down from 971 the day before, but officials are tracking more than 280 active outbreaks across the country.