Ministers downgraded Portugal’s travel status from green to amber after just 1.5 per cent of travellers tested positive for Covid over two weeks in a sample, it emerged yesterday.
Three positive cases were spotted out of 200 travellers coming from Portugal between May 6 and May 19.
The positive samples were sent for genomic sequencing for detecting mutant variants, but it is not clear if any were found. The figures were compiled by the Joint Biosecurity Centre for the Government. JBC data is used by ministers to decide whether countries should be ranked green, amber or red under the Covid traffic light travel system.
People with bookings to Portugal face the choice of rescheduling for later in the year in the hope it goes green again or seeking refunds
They downgraded Portugal on Thursday, citing a near doubling of the country’s infection rate and the discovery of the Nepal virus mutation.
The travel industry reacted with fury to the JCB data last night, saying it was proof of the very low risk posed by people arriving from Portugal. It insisted the country should have stayed green.
Separate figures showed that, between May 18 and 24, the seven-day rolling average of new Covid cases per 100,000 of Portugal’s population was 30.2. On May 31, the rate in the UK was 35.9.
A leading epidemiologist said he did not understand the Government’s thinking. Professor Tim Spector, of King’s College London, said: ‘If you travel from London to Manchester at the moment, it’s a much greater risk than going to Portugal, Spain, Italy, France. Are we protecting the Portuguese from problems? Is it that way around? Because, otherwise, I don’t really get it.’
He told Times Radio: ‘We can’t stop variants coming into this country unless we completely lock down the country. I think we just ought to start settling down and dealing with our own outbreaks and not try to have this haphazard travel policy which is causing a lot of fear and confusion.’
It came as more details emerged of the heated Cabinet meeting last week in which Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps clashed angrily. Mr Hancock is said to have been the driving force behind ministers’ decision to ignore JBC advice that Malta and a list of other islands should be added to the green list.
He is also said to have rejected the idea that Portugal should be put on a ‘watchlist’ rather than immediately turned amber. The watchlist option acts as an early warning sign, designed to give people more time to return home before a country goes fully amber if the Covid data gets worse.
Mr Hancock was said to have been backed by Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and the Home Office. They also opposed Malta being added to the green list. One Whitehall source claimed Mr Hancock and Mr Shapps had a ‘massive barney’.
Portugal’s downgrading triggered chaos as holidaymakers scrambled to dash home to beat ten-day quarantine rules which kick in at 4am tomorrow
Tim Alderslade, of Airlines UK, said last night: ‘We essentially have a pretend traffic light system. They have ignored their own recommendations and led an entire industry down the garden path. It’s clear that many in Government don’t want international travel this summer. They should have the decency to tell us so we and our passengers can plan accordingly.’
Portugal’s downgrading triggered chaos as holidaymakers scrambled to dash home to beat ten-day quarantine rules which kick in at 4am tomorrow. People with bookings to Portugal face the choice of rescheduling for later in the year in the hope it goes green again or seeking refunds.
Seven countries were added to the red list, but no new ones went green. It means that, of the 11 destinations left on the green list, Gibraltar and Iceland are the only ones Britons can realistically visit. Quarantine-free travel is only possible to green countries.
They are also the only ones where ministers say people should go on holiday. The list is reviewed every three weeks, with the next due on June 28.
A Government spokesman said last night: ‘We have taken a cautious approach to our green travel list to protect the country and our vaccination campaign from the threat of Covid-19 variants.’
Race to escape the misery of quarantine
From Gerard Couzens at Faro Airport
Frantic Britons queued for hours in baking heat yesterday as they tried to beat the clock to get out of Portugal.
Hundreds who turned up at Faro airport for rescheduled flights had to line up outside the terminal in 25C (77F) heat.
The wait was even longer for those scrambling to get Covid tests without which they could not get on their planes.
Those who fail to return home by 4am tomorrow will have to quarantine for ten days after Portugal was unexpectedly moved off the ‘green list’ last week.
Many decided to come to the airport a day before their pre-quarantine flights home to make sure they got test results
This prompted many to cut short their holiday – some almost immediately after arriving – to go back home.
Algarve tourism bosses mobilised a lorry to beef up airport Covid testing after travellers were turned away from centres near their resorts.
Many decided to come to the airport a day before their pre-quarantine flights home to make sure they got test results. They took no chances after several holidaymakers missed their flights home at the weekend after failing to get their negative results back in time.
Katherine Hitchen, 30, from Hindhead, Surrey, travelling home with dad Michael and daughter Ivy, three, said: ‘We touched down on Thursday to texts saying Portugal had been put on the amber list. We were planning to stay for a week but are going back on Monday now to avoid quarantine.
‘It’s been a stressful few days since we arrived.
‘I’d like to be sitting round the pool right now, not waiting to have a swab stuck up my nose.’
Louise Cooper, 55, from High Peak in Derbyshire turned up to be tested at Faro airport yesterday eight hours before her flight home. She said: ‘We got here on Monday morning and spent the first three days trying to sort out the tests for our flight home.
‘It’s been a nightmare. Everywhere was fully booked. The only place we were offered was a drive-thru in Faro which was about an hour away from where we’ve been staying in Praia da Luz. Being a drive-thru, we were told we needed a car – which we don’t have.’ Michael Nyhan, 70, who arrived on Thursday for a week’s break in Praia da Rocha with wife Angela, 67, said: ‘We’re going back today instead. We can’t face being cooped up inside again after the lockdown we’ve already been through.
‘We hadn’t even checked into our hotel room when we found out Portugal was going amber.’
Dads cut off from kids amid Covid court chaos
By Steve Doughty Social Affairs Correspondent
Thousands of separated and divorced parents have lost contact with their children because of the effects of the pandemic on the courts.
A record 9,000 applied to the courts last year for help to see their children as contact arrangements among divided families broke down, Whitehall figures show.
But the slowdown in hearings during lockdown has meant that only a handful have won assistance from judges to re-establish their rights.
The effective breakdown of the family court system follows an increase in conflict between separated parents after the imposition of Covid rules last year.
A large number of separated parents with custody of children – almost always mothers – are thought to have taken advantage of lockdown to shut ex-partners out of their children’s lives.
Tensions among separated families have been stoked by a series of errors and official decisions, including mistaken advice from Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove to not let children leave home to meet their other parent, and a ruling that family contact arguments should go to the back of the queue for court time during lockdowns.
The Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett warned MPs last month that there is now a threat to the safety of judges in family courts, ‘where emotions run very high and some disappointed litigants have behaved very badly indeed’.
Figures prepared by the Ministry of Justice show that numbers of complaints to the courts by separated parents shot up by a third as the first lockdown started.
These complaints, in the form of applications to judges for orders enforcing family contact rules, went up from 1,944 in the first three months of 2020 to 2,583 over the three following months.
Overall, there were an unprecedented 8,798 enforcement applications made during 2020, which is 12 per cent up on 2019, and more than four times the total in 2011. But very few of the fathers asking to see their children won the backing of a judge. Just 24 contact enforcement orders were issued in 2020, fewer than one for every 350 applications.
Lawyers blamed the willingness of mothers to use lockdown to break relationships between children and fathers. Katie Welton-Dillon of Hall Brown Family Law said: ‘Some parents seem to have taken advantage of the circumstances and simply stopped contact altogether.
‘The figures which have been published suggest that what we have seen may not be an exception.
‘Certainly, almost all the applications to enforce a child arrangements order that I have dealt with over the last year have been because one parent used Covid as something of an excuse to break off contact.’
She said that because of Covid restrictions in the courts, ‘rules were put in place to prioritise certain types of case’, explaining: ‘While situations that carried a risk of serious physical harm to a child or the parent with whom they lived have been dealt with swiftly, enforcement has not.’
Miss Welton-Dillon pointed to the potential for children to suffer ‘serious emotional harm’ if they can’t have a relationship with both parents where safe and possible.
About 1,000 separated couples each week go to the family court to ask a judge to settle whether and how they should share time with their children.
Judges have complained that warring couples now ask the courts to settle the simplest disputes.
In one case last year, a couple went to court to settle which M4 junctions they should meet at to hand over their children.