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Covid-19: Portugal travel delays frustrate Britons

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Beach at Lagos, Portugal

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British holidaymakers in Portugal are rushing back home before the country is added to the UK’s travel amber list amid concerns about rising Covid cases.

From 04:00 BST on Tuesday Portugal will be dropped from the green list, and returnees made to self-isolate for 10 days and take two PCR tests.

Airlines have added extra capacity, with British Airways and EasyJet saying there are still seats available.

But people are reporting difficulties in getting pre-departure tests.

Bookings to Portugal soared last month after it was placed on the green list, meaning UK residents could travel there without having to quarantine on their return.

But the government last Thursday announced the country would be moving to the amber list within five days.

The Department for Transport cited a near doubling of positive Covid cases in Portugal in the last three weeks, and concerns about the detection in the country of a mutation of the Delta variant first identified in India.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said “tough” rules on international travel were necessary to protect the success of the UK’s vaccine rollout.

BA said passengers are able to amend their flights free of charge through its website, while EasyJet says there are no fees for people who want to switch to a different flight.

However, the UK move has seen some passengers struggle to obtain proof of a negative Covid test, which is needed before their return to the UK and has to be taken no less than 72 hours in advance.

Angela Mantana and Craig Stanley, from Derby, arrived for an eight-day break in the Algarve just before the change from the green to the amber list was announced, and say it is “almost impossible” for them to return.

“To say we are incensed is an understatement,” said Mr Stanley. “We have been unable to get any return flights to avoid self isolation. We now have to do a further two tests at an additional cost to the three tests we have paid for if we want to come out of isolation after five days, which isn’t satisfactory at all.”

Angela Mantana and Craig Stanley

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Ms Mantana added: “It leaves us that we’ve got to finish the holiday and then go into quarantine when we get back.

“The implications are we are volunteers at a vaccine centre… so we’ve had to let those people down. Equally I shield an aunty who has severe medical conditions… and I’m not going to be able to do that.”

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Analysis box by Caroline Davies, transport correspondent

This is exactly what the travel industry had hoped to avoid this summer.

They thought the roll-out of the vaccine would bring more consistency, as would the government’s introduction of a watch list, intended to signal to potential passengers that a country could be on the verge of tipping from green to amber.

But the government has shown that when it’s concerned about letting in variants, it can and will close the doors as it did last summer.

It’s led to huge frustration in the travel sector and made many nervous about how strong sales will be this summer, the crucial season for the industry.

Some are already calling for furlough to be extended beyond September into the winter. Most crucially for those running the operations is understanding how and why countries are moved between lists, something they say the government needs to be more transparent about.

The government would disagree, saying it always been about the vaccine, variants, the virus and genomic sequencing.

The next list is expected in a few weeks’ time.

Between now and then there will be pressure from industry for the government to open up or offer them sector specific support.

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Meanwhile, a UK holidaymaker who flew back from Portugal on Sunday has described the “chaotic” scenes at Faro airport.

Mike Indian says he realised something was wrong when he heard the final calls for his flight back to London Luton while he was still stuck in a long queue.

He told the BBC other passengers were understanding and let them and dozens of others move to the front of the queue.

“The moment the bag goes down the chute it’s like the starting pistol and there’s dozens of us running through Faro airport and up the escalators… we finally reached the gate but we made it with five minutes to spare.”

Passengers at Faro airport on Sunday 6 June 2021

image copyrightReuters

Alis Ahmedova and her fiance, from Beckenham, London, arrived back from Portugal on Sunday night.

She said: “On arrival in Lisbon, we received the news that Portugal is no longer a green list country. This was the beginning of the end for us. After some deliberation, we decided to change our flight and cut our holiday short.”

But she said they were initially refused boarding and missed their flight because of difficulties with the passenger locator form that all travellers to the UK need to complete before their journey.

“We tried everything… but the form was not accepting our seat numbers, Covid test reference numbers and so not letting us proceed.”

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On 2 June, Portugal had 5.4 new cases per 100,000 people per day, which was only a little higher than the UK at 5.1 – but differences in the amount of testing being done make direct comparisons difficult.

No new destinations were added to the green list in the government’s latest review, but seven countries – Afghanistan, Bahrain, Costa Rica, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Trinidad and Tobago – are being added to the red list, which requires returning travellers to quarantine at a hotel for 10 days.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland confirmed they are adopting the same travel changes, with the lists set to be reviewed again on 28 June.

The health secretary is due to update MPs this afternoon the latest developments in the pandemic.

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