Travel has responded with frustration, fury and despair to the news that Portugal is set to be relegated to the UK government’s amber list just three weeks after it named as one of only a handful of viable green destinations.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps confirmed the decision on Thursday afternoon (3 June). Speaking to BBC News, Shapps said two factors had caused sufficient concern for the UK government to revoke Portugal’s green list status.
"One is that the positivity rate [of Covid-19 infection] has almost doubled since the last review in Portugal," said Shapps. "And the other is that there is a sort of Nepal mutation of the so-called Indian variant which has been detected. We just don’t know the potential for that to be a 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 [domestic] unlock.
Portugal, as well as Madeira and the Azores, will be formally removed from the green list from 4am on Tuesday 8 June, after which time arrivals into the UK from Portugal will, once again, have to self-isolate at home for 10 days – and submit to tests on days two and eight of their quarantine at their own expense.
Portugal’s inclusion on the UK government’s first quarantine-free green list, which came into effect from 17 May when government curbs on non-essential international travel were lifted, was hailed by the travel industry as the first true sign of progress for the sector after a bleak 15 months, and as a sign of the government being willing to reopen travel.
However, the decision – which emerged via a steady drip of apparent leaks to the national press on Thursday afternoon (3 June) – has compounded industry fears of there being no imminent prospect of a sustained resumption of international leisure travel, with the government actively discouraging non-essential travel to amber and red list destinations.
The Department for Transport on Thursday afternoon confirmed Spain, Greece, France, Italy, the US and the Caribbean would all remain on the amber list, and Turkey on the red list. A further seven countries have been dded to the red list – Afghanistan, Bahrain, Costa Rica, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Trinidad & Tobago. No countries have been added to the green list.
EasyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren described Portugal’s removal from the green list as a "shock". "With Portuguese rates [of Covid-19 infection] similar to those in the UK, it simply isn’t justified by the science."
The easyJet chief said the decision was all the more baffling given domestic travel is currently permitted within the UK where some areas have infection rates "20 times greater than much of Europe".
Lundgren also pointed to the government’s failure to operate a "green watchlist". "The government has torn up its own rule book, throwing peoples’ plans into chaos with virtually no notice or alternative options for travel from the UK. This decision essentially cuts the UK off from the rest of the world."
Tui UK managing director Andrew Flintham described the announcement as "another step back" for travel. "After promises 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 week’s notice would be given so travellers wouldn’t have to rush back home. They have failed on this promise."
Virgin Atlantic chief executive Shai Weiss said the government’s traffic light regime would never provide the clarity and certainty consumers and the travel industry needs if ministers didn’t "follow the data".
"Its own evidence shows the US and Caribbean are low risk and should be added to the ‘green list’ no," said Weiss. "We are yet to see clear and transparent guidance on the methodology and data the government is basing these decisions on. It shouldn’t be a state secret.
"This overly cautious approach is failing to reap dividends from the UK’s successful vaccination programme, preventing passengers from booking with confidence."
Weiss also called for urgent talks between the UK and US governments ahead of forthcoming G7 summit over 11-13 June, which the UK is hosting, "to lead the way in opening the skies".
A British Airways spokesperson said: "This is incredibly disappointing and confusing news, not just for aviation, but also for our customers. The UK has reached a critical point and urgently needs travel with low-risk countries, like the US, to re-start the economy, support devastated industries and reunite loved ones.
"With high levels of vaccinations in the UK being matched by other countries, we should see the UK government adding destinations to ’green’ as soon as possible – not turning its back on a traffic light model which we were led to believe was based firmly on scientific data."
Pilots union Balpa said the decision to remove Portugal from the green list and make no further additions could be the "final nail in the coffin" for travel, an industry it said has borne the economic brunt of the Covid crisis with limited help from government.
Acting general secretary Brian Strutton said: "This decision is a total disaster for the already fragile travel industry and is likely to lead to further airline failures and many more job losses.
"We understand safety comes first, but with vaccination programmes going well in many countries, it seems the government is ignoring the evidence and is allowing safe countries to languish in the amber and red categories for no valid reason. Any shred of public confidence is in tatters and the traffic light system seems stuck on red.
“Our airlines need this summer season if they are to survive. The government must look at the evidence and stop the illogical, over cautious approach, that is killing a once thriving industry.”
Gatwick chief executive Stewart Wingate said the update came as "bitterly disappointing news" for passengers and airline. "While it is in all of our interests to ensure we only take forward steps out of the pandemic, we hope the rest of Europe follows the UK’s speed of public vaccination so safe and easy travel to and from the UK becomes a reality quickly, particularly as travel between mainland European countries is opening up already."
He offered a more optimistic take though, stressing that with the UK government still set on easing the country’s domestic lockdown by the end of June, he was confident summer holidays abroad would yet be a reality for many people.
Virginia Messina, senior vice-president of the World Travel & Tourism Council, echoed Wingate’s disappointment though, saying it would extend to travel and tourism businesses across the UK, as well as holidaymakers.
She accused the government of "once again" giving travel "the cold shoulder" by refusing to add more destinations to the "already slim" green list. "There are so many countries with similar vaccination levels and low infection rates as the UK to which travel should be restored immediately, such as the US and Malta," said Messina.
She added Portugal’s relegation to the amber list would "crush" confidence to travel, further depress forward bookings and deter holidaymakers. "This will cause further stress to travel and tourism businesses already reeling from the green list announced just a few weeks ago.
"The WTTC believes the time is now right for the UK to open the doors to safe travel and allow all those who are fully vaccinated, or can show proof of a negative Covid-19 test, to travel freely. The UK could, and should, leverage its hard-won competitive advantage from one of the world’s best vaccine rollout programmes to restore mobility and reopen the doors to safe international travel."
Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, the trade body for UK registered airlines, described the decision as a "fresh body blow" for those keen to get away, and those working in the travel industry, who he said were "in grave danger of being forgotten".
"Despite vaccinating millions more people both in the UK and Portugal, we have actually gone backwards since the original country list was published," said Alderslade. "The vaccine dividend we had built up has now been eroded, and the UK will fall further behind the rest of the EU who are safely opening up their tourism sectors and removing restrictions for vaccinated passengers.
"The government promised a green watchlist to avoid this very scenario of people being stranded overseas – where is it? This decision just adds to the belief that ministers don’t actually want international travel this summer, and want to cut off the UK from the rest of the world despite the success of the vaccination programme.
"If that is the case they should be open and tell us rather than leading us and our customers further down this painful merry dance, and put in place longer-term support measures for an industry now on its knees."