Jet2 planes heading to Spain have been turned around in mid-air as the airline cancelled all flights to the mainland, Balearic Islands and the Canary Islands because of coronavirus.
Confirmed cases in Spain have risen by 1,500 in 24 hours and thousands of people have been placed in lockdown.
The country’s death toll has reached 120 and it is set to enter a two-week state of emergency.
Jet2 said the health and safety of its customers was its number-one priority.
It comes as a newborn baby and its mother tested positive for the coronavirus in England.
According to the Sun newspaper, medics are trying to confirm whether the baby, who was tested at North Middlesex Hospital, was infected during birth or before.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is currently meeting officials at Downing Street to discuss the pandemic.
A further 22 new cases have been confirmed in Wales, bringing the confirmed total in the UK to 820. A total of 11 people have died.
But the government said on Friday it estimated the true number of cases to be around 5,000 to 10,000.
Jet2 flies to destinations including Alicante, Malaga and Lanzarote from nine UK airports.
It said it decided to cancel flights after Spanish authorities ordered bars, restaurants, shops and activities to close.
It said it was liaising with customers who were already in Spain.
“We know these local measures will have a significant impact on our customers’ holidays, which is why we have taken this decision,” an airline spokesperson added.
“This is a fast-moving and complex situation and we are reviewing our programme as a matter of urgency, so that we can fly customers back to the UK.”
Flight tracking information shows five Jet2 planes travelling to Spain have turned around and returned to the UK.
Dale Dixon, 26, from Pontefract was due to fly from Alicante to East Midlands Airport at 11:45 GMT.
He there was a feeling of “deflation” at the airport and no hot food available.
He told the BBC: “It is overcrowded here. There are children just lying around bored and bags scattered all over the place. People are definitely panicking.”
Travel company TUI announced on its website that all holidays due to travel to Spain between 14 and 16 March have been cancelled.
On Friday, British Airways warned it would need to ground flights ‘like never before’ and lay off staff in response to the coronavirus. And Ryanair told staff they might be forced to take leave from Monday.
Christine and Les Jones from Rochester were expecting to fly out on a Jet2 plane to Tenerife at 14:20 GMT.
‘Looking at suitcases’
Christine said: “We haven’t heard a thing from Jet2. But we found out from family members browsing Facebook that all the flights were cancelled to the Balearic Islands, Spain and the Canary Islands.
“The last message we received last night from the company said they were looking forward to seeing us. We are fully ready and packed and are surrounded by our suitcases but we aren’t going anywhere now. I’m just sat here looking at suitcases.”
Jet2’s announcement comes as government sources said mass gatherings might soon be banned in the UK to ease pressure on emergency services.
Scores of major sporting and cultural events have already been cancelled across the country in response to the pandemic.
Banning mass gatherings is not about curbing spread
When the government announced its move to the “delay” phase of its response to the virus, officials made it clear banning mass gatherings was on the table.
But it’s not about curbing spread of the virus. An infected person is most likely to pass it on to those they are in close contact with – as a rough rule of thumb that’s people within 2m (6.56ft) of them for 15 minutes or more.
So whether you are at a mass gathering, next to someone in a pub or travelling on a train, there is a risk of transmission. There is also plenty of evidence to suggest the risk is lower if you’re outdoors. If you ban mass gatherings people just congregate in other places, such as the pub.
Instead, the logic of the move is to relieve pressure on the emergency services in attendance. It was always envisaged that this would be done when we started seeing significant rises in the number of cases – that is thought to be at least a few weeks away.
If the government acts sooner than that – next week as seems to be suggested – it marks a change in approach already. Officials may feel they have been bounced into it sooner than planned by the decision of the Premier League and others to cancel events – or the fact other nations have taken the steps.
But if they are still working on a longer time frame, nothing much has changed since Thursday.
Events still set to go ahead include the Grand National in April, the 75th anniversary VE Day commemorations and Chelsea Flower Show in May, and Glastonbury Festival in June.
It is thought a ban could start to take effect as early as next weekend, although exact timescales are not clear.
In other developments:
- All Apple stores outside of what the tech giant calls “Greater China” – that is China, Macau, Hong Kong and Taiwan – have been closed for two weeks. The tech giant reopened all 42 of its Chinese stores on Friday after they were closed for a month, causing a huge drop in iPhone sales
- People planning to visit elderly relatives this weekend have been reminded to take extra care, after the government released new advice – including that care home providers should review their visiting policies
- The Labour Party and major trade union the GMB are calling for the government to use empty beds in “plush private hospitals” to ease the pressure on the NHS. The union says there are about 8,000 beds in the UK’s private hospitals. Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said it would be “completely wrong” of the prime minister to not use all resources available
- The health minister for Wales, Vaughan Gething, defended the Welsh government’s latest measures – including cancelling non-urgent surgery. “All of my choices are about protecting public health and safety and trying to reduce the number of people who might otherwise not be with us at the end of this,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme
- Catholic churches are preparing for the possibility the celebration of mass may have to “come to an end”, the Catholic leader in England and Wales has said
- In an unprecedented 24 hours, most of the world’s major sporting events have been postponed or cancelled because of the pandemic
- Some events are still going ahead, such as Bath’s annual half marathon. The city; MP, Vera Hobhouse, said it should be cancelled but organisers said it is “now too late to cancel or postpone the event”.