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Hundreds of British tourists flee Swiss quarantine ‘under cover of night’

Trying to keep order in Verbier last month Keystone / Jean-christophe Bott

Hundreds of “furious” tourists from the UK have absconded from obligatory quarantine in the Swiss resort of Verbier. They face fines of up to CHF10,000 ($11,280).

This content was published on December 28, 2020 - 11:11
Keystone-SDA/AWP/Reuters/ts

“Hoteliers noticed that breakfast trays placed outside room doors had not been touched and then realised that the guests had left,” said Jean-Marc Sandoz, spokesman for the municipality of Bagnes, to which Verbier belongs.

He said the resort had identified 420 guests from Britain, including Swiss nationals living there, who had to be quarantined before Christmas. About 50 left immediately and of the remaining 370, fewer than a dozen were still there on Sunday. Many remained in quarantine for a day before fleeing under cover of night, he said.

“We understand their anger,” Sandoz said. He sharply criticised the sudden quarantine requirement for arrivals from Britain. Municipalities had received no help to implement the regulations, he said.

Simon Wiget, director of Verbier tourism, told Reuters that the sudden quarantine order had placed local authorities in a difficult situation. “It’s our role to pass on information – we're not the police,” he said.

On December 20 Switzerland halted all flights from Britain and South Africa because a new variant of the coronavirus, thought to be more infectious, had been detected in those countries. The Swiss authorities ordered all arrivals since December 14 to be quarantined retroactively for ten days from the date of arrival.

“There were families with small children suddenly stuck in 20 square metres,” Sandoz said. “It was unbearable.”

He said some guests had since got in touch from neighbouring France, where the ski resorts were closed “but the Brits could at least get some fresh air”.

Sandoz said the local authorities in Switzerland had initially tried to find return flights for the guests, but when it became clear that only those who had completed ten days of quarantine would be allowed on board, “those affected dismissed the idea”.

According to the authorities, there have been 92 flights from the UK since December 14 with an estimated 10,000 people on board. Sandoz believes that many of these were returning Swiss nationals who were not to be found in ski resorts.

Asked about the run-away tourists, Health Minister Alain Berset said: “We are aware of that. It’s obviously a problem. There was an order to quarantine that has not been respected.”

He said he didn't know the current whereabouts of the tourists but suspected that they had gone home.

“One shouldn’t underestimate what an impossible situation it was,” he said. “We had to decide within hours what to do ... That things don’t work perfectly in such a situation, that problems surface is a reality we have to live with.”

Black week

For Verbier, which has a population of around 9,000, it was one of the blackest weeks on record. Because around a fifth of guests there traditionally come from the UK, the resort suddenly gained a reputation as a Covid hotspot.

“Many Swiss people then cancelled their holidays,” Sandoz said. “Normally Verbier has 50,000 guests that week. Now the hotels only have an occupancy rate of 30-40%.”

Sandoz also fears that the atmosphere has been poisoned for the future. His own British-born neighbour has been criticised in public because of her accent, despite living in Switzerland for 40 years, he said.

“Guests from Britain were understandably furious, accosting hoteliers and complaining to the tourism board,” he said. “We don’t know if they’ll ever return.”

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