Air bridge fiasco

Last week it was the UK government that plunged our tourist industry into chaos by refusing to grant a ‘quarantine-free’ air bridge for holidaying nationals. This week, the damage has been compounded as other countries use the same ‘skewed data’ to conclude the country is ‘unsafe’.

If it was true, that would be one thing. But doctors, university lecturers and expats themselves can see it’s the equivalent of a sledgehammer to crack a peanut.
And in this case the sledgehammer is devastating the economy and destroying lives and businesses.

As one reader emailed on Wednesday: “It just doesn’t make sense. I live on the Wirral where we have had 238 Covid deaths in our local hospital alone. Faro District has had 15 deaths and yet it isn’t safe for me to travel to the Algarve?”

Last Friday Prime Minister António Costa said he had tried to put foreign governments straight about Portugal’s ‘true picture’.

He is convinced, he said, that other Member States are finally realising that the increase in Portugal’s cases is “very localised” (in areas invariably off the tourist map) and therefore doesn’t merit draconian blanket limitations on overall travel.

But while Holland and Hungary may be altering their travel advice relating to Portugal, the UK – the Algarve’s largest market and key also for the island of Madeira – hasn’t moved an inch – and it’s making British nationals see red.

Said one: “I shall be flying to the UK from Portugal on August 3. When I land in the UK I will refuse to quarantine and I will refuse to give any details of where I will be staying. Now they can do one of two things: they can fine me which I will refuse to pay or they can lock me up. If they do arrest me then watch this space. I have already informed certain people in the UK to get in touch with the media when/if this happens.

“I am doing this because I am disgusted in the way my country’s government has treated Portugal” he concluded. “I have lived in Portugal for 14 years and I never thought there would come a day when I would feel so embarrassed to be an Englishman”.

This particular comment is perhaps the strongest of a legion of unhappy emails received, from other nationalities as well.

Eddie Ringoir from Belgium – which has recently tweaked an initial travel ban to simply advise nationals that they should ‘see a doctor’ if they travel to the Algarve or Alentejo – told us: “The Algarve is many times safer than Belgium. There are fewer cases and deaths to our country. Belgium has one of the highest death rates per 100,000 inhabitants in the world! Please urge your government to convince the Belgian government that this is totally wrong and unfair”.

Businesses too have been in touch to plead with us to keep making the case that Portugal – and more particularly the Algarve (where cases are still in the hundreds and contact-tracing has been painstaking) – is ‘safe’.

Said one: “Just keep making a noise. We have to get this air bridge or people will go to the wall”.

Restaurants that have been holding onto staff for months have seen July arrive with nothing like the usual number of clients. In Lagos, for instance, one of the busiest up-market eateries which used to see over 80 diners a night has had nights with less than 10.

40% of restaurants have already admitted to being at the point of ‘closing their doors’ for good. This will wipe out thousands of jobs when an air bridge could have made all the difference.

While business associations are pushing the government to work a miracle, doctors and ‘experts’ insist the decision “must have been based on politics”.

Oksana Pyzik, a specialist in infectious diseases at University College London (UCL) told Lusa it is the only conclusion she can reach as the science behind the decision is “somewhat distorted by different testing strategies and levels of detection of infected people”.

Pyzik stressed that when it comes to testing, Portugal has detected around 79% of its cases, in contrast to the UK (18%) and Germany (43%).

A team of investigators at Lisbon’s ENSP (national school of public health) had already slammed the decision to refuse Portugal an air bridge for its complete lack of “scientific foundation” – because it ignored “other indicators of epidemiological risk” – while medical doctors have told the UK Telegraph that in their opinion the British government has simply opted to “economically reward countries with low infection detection rates” – not countries that are actually making a concerted effort to root out cases and deal with them.

Meantime, the situation in Portugal is still comparatively laudable. There have been less than 1,700 deaths. This works out as less deaths than during the 2018 flu epidemic and just 0.02% of the population. Of the 47,051 infections detected, 33,550 have been pronounced recovered. Areas of Lisbon still under lockdown are manifesting dozens of asymptomatic cases and infection rates are decreasing.

It is very likely that on July 31 when the UK ‘reviews’ its list of countries that don’t require 14-days quarantine for returning nationals Portugal will get its much-needed reprieve. But by then the damage will have been done: scores of cancellations rolled in when the air-bridge bombshell hit on July 3 and hoteliers at the time said there was no way people would rebook even if the policy changed.

To compound frustrations, news over the weekend suggested that several Portuguese emigré families, flying back to UK after holidays here, found themselves waived through at Stansted and Luton airports, with no questions asked on which country/countries they might have visited.

As a result none are serving out the statutory 14-day quarantine, and as they didn’t fill out ‘contact tracing’ forms when they landed, authorities have no way of knowing who or where they are.

STOP PRESS… the petition “Boris Johnson: Give Portugal an Air Bridge” has already got more than 20,000 signatures, but is aiming for 25,000. To add your name to it click here

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