The green list is now 11 countries strong, most of them inaccessible to Britons
The travel industry was dealt a hammer blow on Thursday as Portugal, the only mainstream holiday country on the green list, was downgraded to amber.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps cited fears over “a mutation of the Delta variant”, the virus mutation wreaking havoc in India, for plunging Portugal into the amber category, joining most of Europe. The mutation is linked to Nepal.
The decision was made by the government after an “almost doubling” in the country’s coronavirus positive test rate and the discovery of 68 cases of the Indian variant including some with a mutation previously seen in Nepal.
Mr Shapps said: “I want to be straight with people, it’s actually a difficult decision to make, but in the end we’ve seen two things really which caused concern.
“One is the positivity rate has nearly doubled since the last review in Portugal and the other is there’s a sort of Nepal mutation of the so-called Indian variant which has been detected and we just don’t know the potential for that to be vaccine-defeating mutation and simply don’t want to take the risk as we come up to 21 June and the review of the fourth stage of the unlock.”
Portugal’s removal, which will take effect from 4am on 8 June, was received with disbelief among a travel industry that only restarted legally and tentatively 17 days ago.
All arrivals from Portugal after that date will be required to quarantine at home for 10 days and take two post-arrival PCR tests.
The government had previously stated its intention to give warning of a country moving from the quarantine-free “green list” to the “amber list” by way of a “green watchlist”, to provide some certainty to both the industry and holidaymakers. The latest changes are a U-turn on that intention.
There were hopes that a smattering of Greek islands, including holiday favourites Santorini, Kos and Zante, plus the Balearics and Malta would make the green grade.
But instead the travel industry is now bracing for more company collapses and tens of thousands of additional job losses after no more countries or islands were added to the green list.
The announcement caused Jet2, one of the UK’s leading tour operators, to cancel all its holidays until 1 July.
There are now just 11 nations sitting on the green list, most of them inaccessible to British visitors or accessible only via nations closed off to Britons, such as Australia, New Zealand and an assortment of remote south Atlantic islands. The only feasible European destinations on the green list are Gibraltar and Iceland, which will only admit Britons who have been double vaccinated.
The addition of Portugal and its islands, Madeira and the Azores, to the “safe” list of quarantine-free nations from 17 May, when travel for leisure purposes became legal again after 19 long weeks, was seen as a tentative restart for a beleaguered tourism industry.
Tour operators including Tui and airlines such as British Airways and easyJet piled on capacity to the Atlantic nation, to cater for a boom in demand. On the first day of international travel getting the official nod, 30 flights departed the UK for Portugal.
Many families are currently holidaying in Portugal for half term, with many facing 10 days in quarantine when they return on pre-booked flights.
Dayna Brackley is a consultant who lives in London, has two children aged 4 and 6 and is meant to be doing the school run on Wednesday: “It all feels like a last-minute scramble – I’m meant to be flying home on Tuesday afternoon and taking my kids to school on Wednesday morning.
“If it changes to amber from Tuesday morning, I’ll have to try and get someone else to do the school run while I isolate for 10 days and do all my work via Zoom again, including some important meetings – I’d only just gotten used to doing them in person again.”
Katy Daly, a teacher at a primary school in Essex, is meant to be in class on Wednesday at 8.30am. She also has two children aged 12 and 14, and is flying back to London on Tuesday afternoon, hours after the amber list cut-off.
“My school will have to find cover for my classes and all my students until I’m out of isolation. I’ll also have to pay extra to do a ‘test to release’ after five days to minimise the disruption to my school and to my class. It’ll be expensive and disruptive to their education.”
Industry figures reacted angrily to the update. British Airways labelled the news “incredibly disappointing and confusing”; while easyJet’s Johan Lundgren said Portugal’s removal was “a huge blow”.
The airline CEO said of the decision: “With Portuguese rates similar to those in the UK it simply isn’t justified by the science.
“And to add no more countries to the green list when most of Europe’s infection rates are on a downward trend and many places with low infection rates below that of the UK, such as the Balearics with a current rate of 33 in 100,000 and Malta, with just 12 in 100,000, this makes no sense.”
Andrew Flintham, managing director for Tui, the UK’s largest tour operator, said the announcement was “another step back”.
“After promises that the Global Travel Taskforce would result in a clear framework, removing the damaging flip-flopping we all endured last summer, the government decision to move Portugal straight from green to amber will do untold damage to customer confidence.
“We were reassured that a green watch list would be created and a weeks’ notice would be given so travellers wouldn’t have to rush back home. They have failed on this promise.”
The Twitter account of the cabinet of Portugal’s minister of state for foreign affairs called the decision “not logical”.
It said: “We take note of the British decision to remove Portugal from the ‘green list’ of travel, a decision that to us does not appear logical.
“Portugal continues to carry out its safe and gradual deconfinement plan, with clear rules for the safety of those who live here or visit us.”
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said: “The public has always known travel will be different this year and we must continue to take a cautious approach to reopening international travel in a way that protects public health and the vaccine rollout.”
As of 31 May, more than 100,000 Britons were currently on holiday in Portugal. Conrad Poulson, chief executive officer at Huq Industries, said: “Assuming the largest capacity Boeing 737 or equivalent can carry around 230 people that equates to around 487 flights to get every one of the remaining 112,177 people home.”
Meanwhile, seven more nations were added to the red list: Afghanistan, Bahrain, Costa Rica, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Trinidad & Tobago. Arrivals from these nations, alongside 43 others, must go into hotel quarantine for 11 nights at a cost of £1,750pp.
The traffic light lists were previously slated to be updated every three weeks. The next one is expected on 24 June, with changes due to come into effect a week later.