Greece tourism minister urges UK to not add country to quarantine list

Scotland and Wales have announced new self-isolation rules for travellers from the sun-kissed Mediterranean country

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Wednesday 02 September 2020 09:05
Coronavirus in numbers

Greece’s tourism minister has urged the UK not to close down visits to the country, after Scotland and Wales introduced new measures over concerns about rising coronavirus cases.

The Westminster government is coming under pressure to impose quarantines for travellers for England too, with officials expected to discuss the situation with devolved administrations shortly.

The Scottish Government announced on Tuesday evening that travellers from Greece would have to self-isolate for 14 days from Thursday, while Wales also began asking arrivals from the island of Zante to quarantine.

The Department for Transport said no change to its rules for England had been made, but Wales' health minister Vaughan Gething said he would be pressing the UK Government for an urgent meeting to consider the potential risk from Greece. The DfT was unable to say immediately whether discussions would be brought forward from their usual slot on Thursday to take place today.

The move came as holidaymakers scrambled to return from Portugal amid growing concerns restrictions could be reimposed on arrivals in the UK.

Cabinet minister Therese Coffey rebuked Edinburgh and Cardiff for rushing out announcements ahead of the regular Thursday discussion which has so far determined weekly changes to the government's quarantine exemption list.

“It’s important that we keep to that systematic rhythm, based on evidence, based on data and the judgement that’s made by other ministers in government," said the work and pensions secretary. “It’s a timely process. It has worked well. This is a sensible approach.”

Ms Coffey added: “We know that airlines are very keen, and holiday firms, to reopen different countries, as indeed are different countries.

"But we’ve got to do what’s right for public health in this country. People are aware that there is this threshold the government has, it carefully considers it, and makes its announcements on the Thursday. So I’m conscious that some people may have gone briefly abroad, but they will have done that knowing the risks that things might change."

Restrictions for Greece were lifted in England in July and coronavirus rates in the country remain at 14 cases per 100,000 people in the last week of August - down from 14.9 a week earlier and below the threshold of 20 which has been a factor in decisions to impose quarantine by the UK authorities.

Greek tourism minister Harry Theoharis told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that “every country has the right to take the measures that they feel are necessary to protect the health of their population”.

But he added: “We believe that we have done everything in our power to strengthen the situation, to ensure that both citizens and visitors are safe.

“Greece has a much lower rate of infections, compared to most other countries in Europe. We also are far lower than the UK-stipulated threshold of 20 per 100,000 in the last seven days.

“We have also taken targeted measures in the island of Zante and in other areas and we have seen that those targeted measures - limiting parties and the number of people in bars etc - are effective. In the last few days, if anything, we're actually going down in terms of the notification rate.”

Mr Theoharis said: “Greece is the fifth country in the EU in terms of the number of tests that we conduct. We have sophisticated systems to target those tests at the point of entry to remove people that come in with a positive test, but at the same time we do focus our tests on specific islands.

“In Zante during the past few days we've been conducting specific tests to ensure that we keep the situation under control and under full monitoring. We are targeting in the areas where we see that there is a specific concentration of cases and we take those measures. I want to assure everyone that we do everything in our power and this has been effective The number of cases in Greece has not gone up with the rate that we have seen in other countries, even countries that did not open for tourism.”

Scottish Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said on Tuesday that the importations of new coronavirus cases from Greece represented “a significant risk to public health" north of the border.

He said "regular discussions continue" with the other three UK governments over restrictions.

And Mr Gething said he was pressing for an early meeting between the UK government and devolved authorities on Wednesday to consider the latest risk assessment by the Joint Biosecurity Centre.

The beaches of Greece have been far quieter than normal this summer

Six clusters amounting to more than 30 cases of Covid-19 had arisen from four flights in the last week, two of which landed in England, he said.

All passengers on a flight from Zante to Cardiff on Tuesday night would be told to quarantine and would be given two Covid-19 tests, one within 48 hours and another eight days after their return.

"There are concerns from our public health teams that the current advice and control measures for returning travellers are insufficient," said Mr Gething.

"There is an obvious need for us to consider the potential for changes to the regulations in Wales which would require travellers arriving in the UK from Greece and possibly elsewhere to self-isolate on their return."

Tour operator Tui later said it would no longer be offering holidays to the resort of Laganas on Zante from Thursday.

The Joint Biosecurity Centre was yet to change the risk rating for Greece but the data for the nation, like all others, is being kept under constant review.

With thousands of Britons having travelled to Portugal since the country was exempted from quarantine measures on August 22, rising cases there were prompting airlines to increase capacity as holidaymakers hurried to return in case restrictions are reimposed.

There were 22.3 coronavirus cases per 100,000 people in Portugal in the seven days to August 31, up from 14.5 a week earlier, according to figures calculated by the PA news agency based on data collected by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

The boss of British Airways' parent company has warned that reimposing the quarantine requirement for people returning to or visiting the UK from Portugal would cause further "chaos and hardship" for travellers.

Willie Walsh, chief executive of International Airlines Group, claimed the "ever-shifting list" means "the UK has officially hung up the 'Closed' sign".

"The Government needs to introduce a testing regime to restore confidence," he wrote in The Times.

The travel editor at consumer group Which? criticised the quarantine response as provoking confusion and damaging the travel industry.

Rory Boland said: "Yet again haphazard announcements and rumours around quarantine have sparked chaos and confusion for holidaymakers, with many facing an unenviable choice between paying extortionate prices for last-minute flights home or the disruption caused by two weeks in isolation on their return."

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