Holidaymakers “totally confused” as UK ‘divides’ over quarantine rules

UPDATED September 10:

Only a week ago Portugal’s battered tourism sector was holding its breath ‘praying for a miracle’. Everyone thought that if the country held onto its airbridge with UK the low season would be assured. Against all odds, it did – but the consequences have been anything but miraculous.

 

This is largely because in retaining Portugal’s ‘safe travel status’, British Transport minister Grant Shapps made it crystal clear that his decision could be reversed ‘at any minute’.

 This came AFTER endless reports in the British press that Portugal was coming off the so-called green list which led to a veritable stampede of holidaymakers already here cutting short their stays in a rush to buy new tickets home before quarantine was reinstated.

 Meanwhile families booked to arrive hurriedly cancelled.

 And to make matters even worse, Scotland and Wales decided to remove Portugal from their own ‘air bridges’ – meaning any Brits travelling back to Scotland or Wales DO need to go into 14 days of quarantine.

 Thus in a matter of days, the UK’s approach to one of its nationals’ favourite holiday destinations fractured, taking with it a  shed-load of traveler confidence.

 Hotelier Chitra Stern co-owner of the Martinhal group of family-friendly resorts which has operations in the Algarve and Cascais told the Telegraph it’s “simply not possible” for the hotel industry to work in this way – while the golfing sector (which traditionally gets its best months in September and October) is in despair.

“We’re on a knife edge”, Luís Correia da Silva, president of CNIG, the national council of the golf industry told Expresso. “For October, no one knows whether we’ll have the air corridor or not. They let us keep it this time, but there are no guarantees that we’ll get it in the next review, particularly if we continue registering daily infections of 400 (or so)” (which give or take a few numbers here or there seems to be the case).

“These circumstances are creating great uncertainty among the British about the decision to come or not to the Algarve”, stressed Correia da Silva.

Today (Thursday) sees the opening of the Portugal Masters (running till Sunday) at Vilamoura’s Victoria course, owned by the Dom Pedro group of hotels.  At least this will be attracting “some of the best players in Europe who at the moment don’t have many alternatives”, said the CNIG president.

Dom Pedro’s director of hotels and golfing operations Paulo stressed that despite all the restrictions and fears regarding Covid, the Algarve is still a marvellous place for any golfer to be.

“Golf is an individual sport where the risk of contagion is very low – and we have all the conditions to comply with DGS health directorate sanitary measures”, he said.

It’s simply a question of ‘confidence’, which papers like the Telegraph have said has been “destroyed for good” by the shambolic way the whole air bridge policy has been handled.

A week ago, British health minister Matt Hancock announced a decision on Portugal’s ‘travel corridor’ would come ‘at Friday lunchtime’.

Then, out of the blue, came the tweet on Thursday late afternoon from Grant Shapps saying there would be ‘no English additions or removals’ to foreign office travel advice ‘today’.

Yes, there was momentary relief and a sense of delight among those who hadn’t beaten a hasty and expensive early retreat home. But this soon dissipated. Portugal’s virus numbers have continued to rise; hospital admissions have suddenly started to increase, and Mr Shapps has always tempered his tweets with the warning that the travel corridor remains “under constant review” and can “change at very short notice”.

Visiting Castro Marim last Friday, President Marcelo seemed to sense the downward spiral, saying he “had hoped that case numbers would be rising in the region of around 100 per day in September”.

This is still looking a long way off. But bizarrely here we are a week on and as we write this text Portugal does at least still have air bridge status.

Another ‘plus’ is that the UK appears to be ready to change its approach to international travel.

Articles in the press on Monday described Grant Shapps as “working night and day to explore the possibility of an airport testing regime” (to reduce the time travelers would be forced into quarantine), while Matt Hancock and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab have apparently “pledged to review quarantine rules”.

The wider tourism and travel industry is powering the sense of urgency. Sixty businesses delivered a European Tourism Manifesto to the EU on Monday in an appeal to the governments of member states to “harmonise restrictions” before the sector is damaged any further.

Describing itself as the voice of the European travel and tourism sector, the manifesto stresses “it is crucial that travel within the EU and the wider European area (including EEA, UK and Switzerland) be carefully and quickly restored”.

European travel and tourism has been “the ecosystem most affected by the coronavirus crisis due to insufficiently coordinated travel restrictions, declining traveller confidence and reduced consumer demand”.

Talking to Dinheiro Vivo on Monday evening, president of NERA, the Algarve’s business association Vítor Neto said 2020 truly has been the worst year for the sector since 1950 (basically meaning since records for tourism began). What lies ahead will be another ‘challenge’, he said: Portugal’s need to reaffirm its value as a destination in a market that will be “increasingly aggressive”.

But for now the focus is on our numbers: and the last seven days’ rolling average is not looking good. 

Some papers have put it at 46 in 100,000 – way beyond the so-called UK benchmark of 20.The heavily-populated areas of Lisbon and Vale do Tejo and the north of Portugal are the areas most affected, but until Portugal hears categorically that it is ‘back on the UK’s blacklist’, businesses are trying to stay positive and hope low-season holidaymakers brave the uncertainty and keep on coming.

ORIGINAL TEXT posted on September 4:

British holidaymakers in Portugal have been on a roller-coaster for days. 

Those that haven’t spent ‘small fortunes’ to return early to UK ahead of what they believed would be a change in the quarantine rules this week were momentarily ‘celebrating’ yesterday following a surprise late-afternoon announcement from Transport Minister Grant Shapps that there would be ‘no English additions or removals’ to foreign office travel advice ‘today’. 

But the sense of relief (and delight) that spread over jungle drums across packed beaches was overshadowed by ever-present warnings that the British travel corridor list remains “under constant review” and can “change at very short notice”.

Worse was the ‘update’ that Scotland and Wales HAVE decided to remove Portugal from their ‘green lists’ for safe travel (although Wales has exempted Madeira and Azores…) 

Wales introduced quarantine for returning nationals from 4am today (Friday), while Scotland is giving its citizens until 4am tomorrow (Saturday).

The resulting confusion for ‘Brits’ – now sub-divided into English, Scottish, Welsh or indeed Irish (who still don’t even have the travel corridor with Portugal…) – exposes the quarantine policy for what it is: a complete shambles.

Interviewing ‘Brits’ in the Algarve yesterday, Sky News quoted one mum who had ‘forked out £900 for earlier flights home’ complaining that “the government just changes the goalposts left, right and centre”.

“The travel policy is in tatters and dividing the UK”, Paul Charles, CEO of travel consultancy The PC Agency told Sky.

So where does that leave ‘the Brits’ who decided to stick it out on holiday here, despite the panicking exodus that began last weekend? Well, depending on where they live some today will be feeling positive, others will still be suffering confusion and anxiety.

Major questions surround those for instance who may live in Wales, but flew here on holiday from let’s say Bristol. Ostensibly they will be flying ‘home’ to a country that, for now, is not demanding 14-days quarantine. But if they return to their own homes (as most people do after a holiday), they will be entering a country that is demanding 14-days quarantine. 

Says the BBC, quarantine has already been “hard or impossible to police”. Now with the United Kingdom ‘fractured’ over travel advice the situation threatens to implode entirely.

Indeed, describing the challenges, the BBC has concluded “no one will be checking” that holidaymakers do what they are supposed to be doing, in whichever British country they live.

None of these issues are Portugal’s direct concern, though of course they will be affecting holidaymaker confidence, which is vital for the success of any travel destination.

UPDATES LIKELY through the course of today – particularly as it is understood that ‘ministers from all four UK nations’ met last night to ‘discuss the situation’.

FINES FACING QUARANTINE-BREAKERS

On the basis that quarantine may be checked, each country within the United Kingdom has its own fines:

Scotland – £480

Wales – £1,000

Northern Ireland – £1,000

England – Between £1,000 and £3,200.

There is also a £5,000 fine in place in England for ‘persistent offenders’, and a £100 fine for people who fail to fill out passenger locator cards.

WHY COUNTRIES ARE CHANGING TRAVEL ADVICE TO PORTUGAL

The reason countries are changing travel advice to Portugal (along with advice to several other nations) is the rise in the number of infections beyond the so-called ‘benchmark’ of 20 in 100,000 inhabitants.

The UK says that although Portugal’s rolling seven-day tally puts infections now at around 23 people per 100,000 this has to be weighted against the fact that health authorities have also vastly increased testing and have robust containment measures in place.

Scotland and Wales however have not appreciated these factors, thus their decisions to reinforce quarantine after a travel corridor of just two weeks.

natasha.donn@algarveresident.com