A group of 26 British skiers is in isolation in a French resort after 16 tested positive for Covid.
Villagers in the tiny commune of Vallorcine, in the Chamonix Valley, have branded the party “irresponsible” for escaping UK lockdown to go skiing.
The Brits, described as gap-year students who paid £8,900 each for the 10-week ski course, arrived in France by road, air or train between January 13 and 17.
Some were delayed after they were stopped from boarding a Eurostar train at London St Pancras in breach of coronavirus restrictions and were forced to find other means of travel or forgo the trip.
The students, mostly aged 18 to 20, were booked on a British Association of Snowsport Instructors course with Peak Leaders in Verbier, Switzerland.
But due to a ban on people entering Switzerland directly from the UK, organisers arranged instead for the group to travel to France.
The plan was for the party to spend the first 10 days in Vallorcine, a hamlet of 400 people near Chamonix that sits on the French-Swiss border, to remove the need to quarantine on arrival in Switzerland.
However on Tuesday one of the students “felt a bit tired and run-down” and had a Covid test which proved positive.
The rest of the group was tested the following day.
By Thursday evening, 16 had tested positive, nine were negative and one result was inconclusive.
Despite the ski lifts being closed indefinitely in France, the resort’s accommodation is open, as are the shops. Bars and restaurants are open for take-away service but there is a strict curfew from 6pm to 6am.
However, across the border in Switzerland, the ski lifts are open for business despite rising numbers of infections.
The Brits are staying at the four-star Dormio Resort in Vallorcine. The hotel's 14 members of staff are waiting for results of their tests.
The manager said: “They booked an all-inclusive package. The organisers took all the correct precautions. The guests left the UK with negative PCR tests.
“We have strict Covid protocol in the Residence so our staff did not mix with the guests but we are all being tested of course.
“The guests are in five apartments all on the same corridor. Their meals are being left outside their apartments.
“The guests are young, aged about 18 or 19. They are well-behaved and respectful. But I am very concerned about the impact on the village.”
The Vallorcine town hall sent a message via its alert SMS system informing inhabitants of the cluster of cases and urged people who had been on contact with any member of the group to come forward.
One villager, who declined to be named, said the inhabitants in the tight-knit community were “not pleased”.
He said: “Anyone who has been near these people are being tested.
“People are worried, especially if it’s this new British variant of the virus. Only 400 people live here and suddenly we’ve got 16 cases.
“Was this really essential travel? They seem to have used a loophole to escape lockdown in the UK and travel down through France where they can wait out their time until they can then go to Switzerland to ski.
“They couldn’t fly to Switzerland so came here instead. Our lifts are closed here in France so it’s even more infuriating that they have used our village as a stop-over. It’s irresponsible. People here are not pleased.”
Guy Ordway, a partner of Peak Leaders in Verbier who organised the course, defended the trip.
He said: “It’s important that people can continue to get qualifications. We have followed the rules to the letter. At no point has it been an exercise in cheating the system. It’s very unfortunate.
“Skiing is considered an exclusive, luxury sport and for some it’s hard to imagine it is a qualification. But this is exactly what these students are doing. It’s part of their education. They are not breaching any rules.
“Travel is exceedingly difficult at this time and we did a lot of research and we spoke to the French consulate in London.
“They all had Covid tests in the UK.
“They think they caught it on the train in France. They felt intimidated travelling on the regional trains in France. A lot of them had come from Level 4 lockdown in the UK and then found themselves on busy trains.”
He admitted that some of the party were caught at London St Pancras trying to board a Eurostar train with skis and were refused travel.
He said “some of these people just did not travel at all after that” and returned home.
The tests have been sent to the Centre National de Référence in Lyon to identify if the strain is one of the new variants worrying scientists.
The regional health authority said “investigations were underway” in terms of contact tracing.
The tests have been sent to Lyon for analysis. It will take a further eight to 10 days to determine if the strain is the highly contagious British variant.
The mayor of Vallorcine Jérémy Vallas said: “The inhabitants are concerned. As soon as it was known the group was British then people were worried they will have brought the British variant here.
“It’s been very difficult. The one positive news is that so far the results of seven staff are known and they are all negative so this gives us some confidence.
“The group should have been isolating since Tuesday when the first person tested positive. But of course the others were tested on Wednesday so would have had to have left their accommodation for that. Some people are saying they saw some members of the group out sledging but keeping a good distance.”