Portugal’s foreign affairs minister predicts flights with UK back in operation “before summer”

With the level of Covid-19 infections falling drastically in Portugal, the tourism industry is daring to hope that business will start trickling through as the sun begins to shine. Portugal has lost roughly 45,000 tourists a day since the start of the pandemic, dragging the sector that underpins the national economy back in terms of revenue to the 80s. Everyone is simply desperate for some good news.

Monday saw a chink of light in lockdown gloom as foreign affairs minister Augusto Santos Silva told the UK Telegraph that flights to and from Portugal and the UK ‘should be back in operation before the summer’.

Mr Santos Silva gave no context to his declaration which came in an otherwise rather cantankerous ‘exclusive’ interview in which he criticised the British government for putting Portugal on a red-list of countries that impels anyone travelling into UK to go into enforced quarantine at an airport hotel.

Mr Santos Silva’s reasoning was coherent: the UK targeted Portugal because of its links with Brazil and was concerned these risked the arrival into Britain of the Brazilian variant.

But, as he pointed out, there still hasn’t been one case of the Brazilian variant identified in Portugal. In fact, transmission here has been strongly affected since Christmas by the arrival of the British variant.

The problem behind all the bickering remains that governments, no matter where they are, seem ‘terrified’ to make decisions that will ‘release’ citizens back to the freedom of being able to make up their own minds.

Whether vaccination programmes are ‘world breaking’ or just ‘doing the best they can under the circumstances’, experts keep stressing that even with both shots, people should remain ‘physically distanced’ adhering to all measures of mask-wearing, hand-washing and reduced social interaction.

With the UK being one of Portugal’s largest tourist markets – and governments there making it practically against the law for people to go on holiday – it’s hard to imagine what the tourist industry is thinking.

In Europe, various countries have introduced different restrictions on mobility to the point that the commissioner for matters of justice Christian Wigand has said the coordinated approach the bloc had been striving for is “at risk of fragmentation and disruption”.

Portuguese prime minister António Costa is tabling discussion on this subject for the Council of General Matters, convening next Tuesday.

The idea is to get every Member State ‘back on board’ so that at least European tourism will know where it stands before the season starts.

Vaccination passports? ‘Yes’ says hoteliers association; ‘too soon to tell’, says government
Raul Martins, president of AHP – the Portuguese hoteliers association – as well as head of the administration of Altis hotels, has told reporters this week that the European Commission should recommend ‘vaccine passports’ as a way of giving people ‘safety to travel’.

He told Correio da Manhã, for a feature the tabloid has done on ‘tourism’s hopes for recovery’, that thanks to the rhythm of vaccinations in the UK, Portugal “can count on British tourists arriving from June”.

Again, nothing further was explained. It was another statement giving hope without context.

Meantime, the government (in the form of the economy ministry) has said it is “too soon” to discuss the creation of a vaccination passport – not least because airline passengers are already controlled by dint of having to perform pre-flight Covid tests – and the jury is still infuriatingly out on whether vaccinations really do stop transmission, and if they do, for how long.

Whatever happens, ‘rules should be harmonised’, says the ministry – which leads us back to PM Costa’s objective for next week’s Council of General Matters.

Greece, however, has implemented its own policy – signing a deal with Israel on Monday, allowing mutual travel by citizens who have been fully vaccinated: while Sweden, Denmark and Iceland have already announced ‘digital vaccination certificates’, designed to be used for access to sporting and cultural events, and even for people being able to enter restaurants.

The unspoken issue here is the fact vaccine manufacturers are already ‘tweaking’ vaccines to cater for mutations flagged in a growing list of variants. How can a vaccination certificate mean anything when the shots themselves are constantly changing?

For all kinds of reasons, countries like France and Germany are against the implementation of vaccination passports – at least for now.

France, because it believes ‘more time is required’ (to see how effective vaccinations actually are); Germany because it is opposed to lifting restrictions for one section of society (i.e., those who have been vaccinated).

There is also the conflict of ‘how can a vaccination passport determine people’s ability to travel, when vaccinations themselves are not mandatory?’

Belgium has said it is ‘waiting for decisions at a European level and from the World Health Organisation’ (WHO); Poland has launched a mobile phone app that allows vaccinated people to skip quarantine when they enter Poland, and the WHO has said, for now, that it is not in favour of vaccine passports.

In other words, as governments face the unenviable task of drawing up roadmaps out of lockdown, the likelihood of ‘confusion’ seems to be growing.

In Holland, for example, a court has ruled that the State of Emergency nighttime curfew is illegal because there really is no longer an emergency in the Netherlands. As with every other country in Europe (if not the world), the pandemic is easing. The Dutch government doesn’t agree with the court ruling however, and has told citizens to stick to the curfew as it mounts an appeal.

All this shows that populations are restless. Whether it’s summer holidays or just the chance to leave one’s area of residence and visit friends, people are seeing virus numbers declining and they want to be released.

Golf sector pushes for green-light
Enter Portugal’s golfing federation which stresses as diplomatically as possible that golf is a sport that is tailor-made for a pandemic. It is practised in the open-air, its technical demands require physical distancing – and it promotes the kind of feeling of well-being that lockdowns have crushed.

In a letter to João Rebelo, Secretary of State for Youth and Sport, Miguel Franco de Sousa, president of the Portuguese Golf Federation, says not only is the sector “exemplarily prepared” to pick up where it left off when the country was shut down nearly five weeks ago, it can address the serious consequences on physical and mental health that a ban on sports has had on players – numbers of which increased during the first lockdown precisely because golf is such a ‘Covid-safe’ kind of sport.

Pressure is growing everywhere for people to be allowed to live again – and to hope again.

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