Agents in Scotland have lambasted the UK government’s decision to remove Portugal from its quarantine-free green list for international travel, warning it heralds a return to last summer’s travel corridor "hokey cokey".
After hours of leaks to the national press, which caused consternation for travel businesses, transport secretary Grant Shapps finally confirmed the government’s decision at around 4.30pm on Thursday afternoon (3 June).
Shapps said the government’s Joint Biosecurity Centre had advised removing Portugal owing to the emergence of another new variant of Covid-19, understood to be a mutation of the Delta strain of the virus (commonly known as the so-called Indian variant).
He said the government had taken a "safety first" approach by removing Portugal now in an effort to protect the proposed 21 June unlock of the UK’s domestic economy. "We just don’t know the potential for that [variant] to be a vaccine-defeating mutation," he told BBC News.
Joanne Dooey, president of the Scottish Passenger Agents’ Association (SPAA), said agents in Scotland had run out of words to described their feelings of shock at the measures relating to international travel introduced and subsequently revoked since the start of the pandemic.
"We described the situation of ’travel corridors’ last year as the hokey cokey as we didn’t know from one week to the next which countries would be in or out," said Dooey. "This year, with the introduction of the traffic lights, all we have is a more colourful version of the hokey cokey – which is after all a comical and ridiculous child’s game.
“It’s a fallacy to say there is a green list for Scotland as with the removal of Portugal, which was effectively the only country we could fly to from Scotland, we’ve added another colour – as Scotland seems black-listed."
Dooey added: “This isn’t just about those holidaying in the Algarve who travel agents will have to work, for no income, to repatriate or those who will have to self-isolate for 10 days and take expensive tests; it’s about the systematic dismantling of Scotland’s travel sector.
"At the same time as the wholesale destruction of our country’s travel sector, there is no support to speak of for businesses in the aviation, travel and tourism industry battling to save Scotland’s travel.”
Jacqueline Dobson, president of Scottish independent Barrhead Travel, said Portugal’s removal from the green list was another hammer blow for the industry and travellers alike that would "further compound the damage that has already been inflicted on the travel industry".
“At the drop of a hat, the government has determined these changes are required without meaningful consultation with the industry and without due consideration for the consequences," said Dobson. "We have long been at the stage where a genuine, tangible route map out of this crisis is required. Sadly, it appears that this is not forthcoming and instead we hurtle from one disastrous announcement to another."
Dobson said travel absolutely understood and accepted the need for public health to be the government’s main consideration, but stressed the industry needed support and a roadmap out of crisis to avoid "further permanent damage". "Across the world, international travel is beginning to safely restart," said Dobson. "Without imminent timelines in place for the UK, we risk falling well behind our global counterparts.
“There are thousands of travellers either in the UK, or worse, abroad, who have had their plans upended. Both the industry and travellers were expecting, at the very least, the promised green watchlist tier, which would have made for a softer transition and helped to keep confidence afloat for travel.
"As we have done throughout the pandemic, we will ensure our customers are provided with the assistance they require. However, engagement with the industry on this point is of paramount importance. It is simply unsustainable to continue lurching from one contradictory announcement to the other without meaningful consultation with the industry beforehand."