Photo: Associação de turismo do algarve

Here comes the summer!

British citizens desperate for a chance of the sun this summer are due to learn this week which countries have been cleared for quarantine-free travel – and by all accounts, Portugal is one of them.

UK media has been trailing the announcement all week, and in every report Portugal figures as one of the ‘handful’ of territories on the British government’s ‘green list’.

On the basis that millions of Brits traditionally holiday abroad every year – and that this year safe destinations are at a premium – it could signal a veritable stampede heading Portugal’s way, with holidaymakers champing at the bit for a sun-blessed getaway. On Tuesday, the Foreign Office quietly dropped its warnings on non-essential travel to various destinations – Portugal included (although travel to the Azores is still not advised).

We’re told the full announcement on destinations cleared for holidays should come on Friday.

But whatever happens, for Portugal ‘it’s looking good’.

That’s not to say of course that ‘things could change’. Focus on case counts will be ongoing throughout the season; restrictions will be in place when it comes to numbers on beaches, numbers in restaurants etc., but at last life looks like it could be easing up.

With the vaccination roll-out here ‘doing the best it can’ (the majority of people over the age of 70 are now covered and efforts to reach everyone over 40 by the end of the summer on track), the reality is that the ‘horror of this virus’ seems to be gently receding.

Virologist Pedro Simas stressed last month that 90% of mortality has already been eliminated thanks to vaccinations administered to the elderly and most vulnerable. “The summer will be practically normal”, he predicted – which after the last 14 months in which businesses have buckled and jobs have been lost could not be more inspiring.

Certainly tourism promoters are positive: Algarve tourism boss João Fernandes is expecting “a substantially better summer” this year (see page 17) with over €7 million having been spent on promoting the Algarve throughout Europe as a Covid-safe destination. The UK Telegraph has been extolling the many virtues of a holiday in Portugal, and promoters like Thomas Cook are rolling up their sleeves and expecting trade to start picking up in earnest from end June when the school holidays begin.

What could possibly go wrong?
Well, there are quite a few grey areas: not least the recent announcement by the European Commission that third countries should start being welcomed for tourism on the basis of their having being vaccinated. The exact scenario was laid out as ‘having been fully vaccinated, with at least two weeks since the second shot, by an EU-approved vaccine’.

The statement said nothing about people being able to travel with the presentation of a negative PCR test; nor indeed of people being cleared for travel who had contracted Covid-19 and recovered.

Digital Green Certificates (the so-called Covid passports) due to be launched in June were initially introduced as allowing for these three scenarios:
vaccinations, negative tests and natural infection. So why suddenly is it that only vaccinated people may be allowed to travel? Or is the European Commission’s plan only for air travel, ie non-vaccinated people will still be allowed to travel across the bloc if they do so by car?

None of these questions so far seem to have answers.

Another grey area is the “emergency brake” which could be applied at any point to limit non-essential travel if a new variant suddenly came into the mix. How would that affect hundreds of thousands of holidaymakers, wherever in Europe they were?

Even more unclear is the reasoning behind the Commission’s plan to drop testing of travellers if they have been vaccinated (on the basis that it is still far from clear whether or not vaccinated people ‘shed the virus’ even if they are not affected by it).

An EU official admitted: “One very important question linked with vaccination was whether or not individuals being vaccinated would actually break, or help break, transmission. And, fortunately, now, we do have enough solid, deep scientific evidence proving that this is the case.”

Very possibly these crinkles will be ‘ironed out’ before the EU’s policy is set in stone. Certainly leaders are expecting ‘reciprocity’ from the UK: ie if Brits can travel ‘freely’ here, Europeans must be allowed to do the same to the UK. As for guidance from Portuguese authorities about foreigners coming to Portugal for their holidays, there has been very little to hold onto.

Over the weekend, MAI (the ministry of interior administration) issued a press release in which it said restrictive measures on air travel would remain in place until May 16. Arrivals from nine countries (South Africa, Brazil, India, Cyprus, Croatia, France, Lithuania, Sweden and the Netherlands) thus face 14-days quarantine when they get here, and anyone from Germany, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czechia, Denmark, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Spain, Greece, Italy, Hungary, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Poland, Romania or Switzerland is not meant to travel to Portugal for anything but essential reasons.

The press release concluded with the assurance that: “The GNR, PSP and SEF will realise mobile controls of collective public passenger transport vehicles, motorhomes and light vehicles, to inform citizens of the duties to which they are subject and to monitor compliance”.

That very same day, 120 cars per minute breezed unheeded into Portugal over the Algarve’s Castro Marim border post, almost every one of them carrying Spanish families looking for a delicious lunch in Vila Real do Santo António – a town that is ostensibly on ‘alert’ for exceeding the stipulated number of virus cases per 100,000 in population.

A police source at the border told reporters that controls exercised during the height of the pandemic were now not in effect.

In other words, Portuguese government policy has not been making a lot of sense. But it’s ‘early days yet’: the holiday rush isn’t expected till the latter part of June, and for businesses everywhere the moment cannot come soon enough.

[email protected]