Portuguese PM hints at tighter Covid rules for tourists from UK

Boris Johnson’s plans to back summer holidays for the fully vaccinated faced a stumbling block as Portugal’s prime minister became the first EU leader to suggest he would abide by Berlin’s calls for tighter Covid restrictions on British tourists.

As Johnson talked up the prospects of travel this summer, even declining to rule out a foreign holiday for himself, EU leaders in Brussels were debating how to respond to the highly transmissible Delta variant first identified in India and now dominant in the UK.

António Costa, who opened up Portugal for quarantine-free breaks in mid-May to British tourists with a proof of a negative Covid test, hinted at a U-turn in his policy to travellers coming from the UK as he spoke to reporters at an EU summit.

Costa said his government had permitted UK tourists to enter Portugal in recent weeks on the basis of a low number of Covid cases. The UK now has the worst Covid case rate in Europe due to the spread of the Delta variant.

“We imposed quarantines for countries where case numbers are above the threshold, which wasn’t the case with the UK,” Costa said in response to criticism of his government’s policy since May.

On Wednesday, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, had referenced a hike in infections in Portugal as she called for British tourists to face quarantine wherever they arrive in the EU. Germany insists that travellers from the UK isolate for 14 days on arrival.

Costa said Merkel was “completely right” about needing “to coordinate regarding our external borders, since we have freedom of movement within the European Union”.

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Speaking at the Brussels’ summit, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, added his voice to the calls for better coordination with regard to non-EU countries such as the UK. France currently permits fully vaccinated UK travellers to enter without quarantine.

Macron said: “We must remain vigilant because of the Delta variant, which spreads faster than the previous variants and we see that it affects people who are not vaccinated or who have only one dose, so that means we have to go even faster in the vaccination campaign, and, above all, we have to be very coordinated.

“Coordination when it comes to opening borders to third countries and in terms of recognising only the vaccines that have been approved by the European medicines agency.”

The contrast between the UK government’s hopes of opening up and the concerns expressed by the EU reflect the relative lack of vaccination coverage in the union and fears that the Delta variant could inflict a heavier death toll in the 27 member states than in Britain.

Dr Andrea Ammon, the director of the European centre for disease prevention and control, had warned on Wednesday of the EU’s vulnerability to a new wave of deaths, given that about 30% of people aged over 80 and 40% of the over 60s are yet to receive two vaccine doses.

It is yet to be seen whether the leaders of countries whose economies are highly dependent on tourism will adhere to Merkel’s call.

It remains most likely that fully vaccinated tourists from the UK will be able to avoid quarantine in a number of EU countries. But the leaders’ comments highlight the unpredictability facing those hoping for a summer break even as the UK government prepared to announce the addition of Malta and the Balearic islands to England’s green list from where people will not need to quarantine on returning home.

Double Covid jabs offers 'real prospect' of opening up travel, says Boris Johnson – video
Double Covid jabs offers ‘real prospect’ of opening up travel, says Boris Johnson – video

Speaking hours before the meeting where the changes to the UK’s green list are due to be signed off, Johnson sounded an optimistic note about the prospects of summer breaks for those who had received two vaccine doses.

“I think that the real opportunity we all have now is to open up travel through the double jab,” he said on Thursday, the day after more than 16,000 new cases were recorded in the UK – one of the highest daily figures since the beginning of February.

“If you look at it … more than 60% of our population have now had two jabs. I think 83% have had one jab – we’re really getting through it now.

“The crucial thing is come forward and get your second jab.”

Johnson said his own summer holiday plans were “at the unformed stage”. When pressed on whether he would be taking an overseas break, he said: “I’m certainly not ruling it in or ruling it out.”

Changes to England’s traffic light system, which classifies countries according to their number of Covid cases and their vaccine and variant situations, are expected to be announced at about 5pm on Thursday and come into force from next Wednesday.

Travellers were stung at the last review point, three weeks ago, when the health secretary, Matt Hancock, vetoed the addition of Malta to the green list, which would have meant that anyone arriving from the country and testing negative for Covid would not have been required to self-isolate, while Portugal was moved straight to the amber list.

That came as a devastating blow to the aviation and tourism industries, as well as those who had already booked their flights, given the official government advice that people should not travel to amber list countries, and that anyone who travels from them to England must isolate for up to 10 days at home, or use the test-to-release system from day six.

Asked what Johnson thought about the comments of EU leaders, his spokesman said: “Currently it is down to individual EU member states to decide on the rules governing their borders.

“We are moving at speed through our vaccination programme to help us curb this latest variant and that will allow us to move to step four, and we are confident that over time it will bring cases down, and that’s the approach we are taking.

“We will continue to have discussions with our European partners on the reopening of international travel, but we’re very confident that our vaccination programme is providing a good way forward.”


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