What really happened in Verbier?

29th December 2020, by Abi Butcher

The Verbier 'great escape' is nothing more than fake news

The Verbier 'great escape' is nothing more than fake news

Yesterday morning, news broke of a mass exodus of British skiers from the Swiss resort of Verbier, apparently hundreds had ‘fled’ under the dead of night last weekend (26/27 December).

As the story goes, they all got together in some cloak-and-dagger operation to escape a retrospective quarantine applied by Swiss authorities on 20 December, requiring anyone who had travelled from the UK since 14 December to self-isolate for 10 days over fears that the mutant strain of Covid-19 found in Kent before Christmas would spread.

So, according to the world’s media, these ‘entitled’ Brits chose to ignore this quarantine, thinking themselves above the law, and risked life and limb to get themselves home for a more comfortable Christmas. Numbers touted around change between 200 and 450 — apparently now there are only a dozen Brits left in Verbier, if you believe what you read.

However, I spent the entire day yesterday researching this story for various UK media news outlets and if you’d like to know what really happened, please read on.

On 20 December, the Swiss authorities panicked about the new variant of coronavirus emerging from the UK (and the other from South Africa) and brought in new rules forcing any travellers who had arrived from Britain since 14 December to quarantine for 10 days. That they applied it retrospectively was problematic: those who had been in Verbier and skiing around happily were suddenly confined to barracks. The authorities had very little way of knowing how many travellers from the UK were in resort and say they disseminated the information as well as they could – via text messages through Swiss phone networks, through hotels, social media and the news. Police in resort stopped people they heard speaking English to check whether they had quarantined and knew of the rules. It didn’t quite cut the mustard, but they tried.

On 21 December, when a text message from Swisscom went out to travellers and the news started to break of these new rules, the Swiss authorities gave Brits the option to return home rather than quarantine. One British skier I spoke to, Yorkshire dentist Alyn Morgan and his wife Emma, a research scientist, said the information given on the government website link included in the text ‘actively encouraged’ Brits to return home if they preferred — giving a 24-hour window in which to do so. The Morgans are staying in a rented apartment and decided to stick it out. It was annoying because they’d had four days’ skiing before the rules came in but don’t leave Verbier until 4 January and have now finished quarantine so are continuing their holiday.

Others did choose to go home — though by all accounts, very few. Warren Smith had 30 British clients booked for lessons with his Ski Academy over the Christmas / New Year break and he reports only two chose to take the return option offered to them by the Swiss. The new manager of L’Hôtel de Verbier, Ebba Leijonhufvud, told me two families from the UK checked out on the morning of 22 December, taking the option to travel home instead of keep their families cooped up in a room where they couldn’t even cook for themselves. “They also wanted to make it easier and safer for us,” Ebba said.

Marcus Bratter, owner of Hotel la Cordée des Alpes, Hotel Montpelier and Hotel la Rotonde told me no guests in those three hotels had done the “Great Escape”. A couple were quarantining, said Bratter, and had decided to extend their holidays to ski afterwards — but the reality is not many Brits are out there.

Other calls, both on and off the record, to event organisers, photographers, friends, ski instructors, British tour operators, owners of ski schools in Verbier … all produced the same version of events: we don’t know anyone who left in the dead of night. Brits are quarantining and those very few who chose to leave did so on the invitation of the Swiss authorities.

So where did the numbers come from? Simon Wiget, director of the Verbier Office du Tourisme, told me with exasperation that it was a “miss-communication” between the French journalist who broke the story and Jean-Marc Sandoz, a spokesman for the municipality of Bagnes (which includes Verbier) who leaves his post on 31 December.

“I don’t know if Jean-Marc got it wrong, or if it was the fault of the journalist who wrote the story, and I no longer care, but the number is made up,” Wiget told me. “We don’t have any direct link to visitors, it’s the responsibility of the authorities so we have no way to know how many people travelled from the UK.

“There was a solution offered to them when the retrospective rules were applied, that was to temporarily break the quarantine and go home. There was some stigma already against Brits in resort because of this variant — something I regret — and for various reasons, some left and some chose to stay and finish their quarantine.

“Some left quickly because of the stigma, and some left after the official ‘window’ which is regrettable, but most respected the rules and I believe the few who left last weekend were a minority. Police told me the same.”

Wiget confirmed what my 20-plus phone calls to all those different business owners and holidaymakers yesterday told me: “It’s fake news that has spread all over the world”.

Whether or not you agree with Swiss ski resorts remaining open, whether or not you believe Brits should be travelling right now anyway, whether you are a Brexiteer or a Remainer, whether you believe ‘bubbles’ should have been allowed over Christmas or whether you have ever ‘illegally’ hugged a relative, friend or loved one over the course of this pandemic — broken the rules in any way — is immaterial. News should not be misreported.

In this case, what happened in Verbier has been misreported in a very damaging and disastrous way for all concerned.

Abigail Butcher is a national newspaper journalist specialising in ski and adventure travel abibutcher.com

To read Where to Ski & Snowboard‘s independent review of Verbier, click here

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