In a move likely to have been signed off by ministers, Britain’s ambassador to Lisbon has signalled that Portugal will probably return to the “no-go” list after just two weeks.
The UK government warned against travel to Portugal for over five months from 17 March.
Self-isolation for inbound travellers was revoked only on 22 August – whereupon tens of thousands of holidaymaker booked late-summer breaks. Airlines and holiday companies including Jet2, Ryanair and Tui laid on extra capacity to cope with the surge in demand.
But the number of new coronavirus cases in Portugal has increased sharply over the past 10 days. And in a series of tweets on Monday night, the ambassador warned: “Travellers should consider their plans carefully.”
Chris Sainty tweeted: “Since [transport secretary] Grant Shapps announced the decision on 20 August to allow quarantine-free travel from Portugal, thousands of British holidaymakers and Portuguese living in the UK have travelled to Portugal.
“It’s been great to see people reunited with their families and enjoying the summer in Portugal.
“We worked closely with Portugal to ensure the situation here was fully understood by decision-makers in the UK. But things can change quickly.
“As cases rise across Europe, quarantine has been reintroduced for many countries, in line with the UK’s overriding goal to protect public health.
“Travellers should consider their plans carefully and factor in the risks of travelling abroad in this fast-moving situation. As Grant Shapps said, only travel if you are content to unexpectedly quarantine if required.”
The tweets are thought likely to have been signed off by the transport secretary and Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary.
The measure used by ministers and the Joint Biosecurity Centre to decide if a country should be deemed “unacceptably high risk” is the rate of new coronavirus cases over a one-week period.
Figures are released by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) each day at 11am.
When a country exceeds 20 cases per 100,000 people, it becomes a candidate for a Foreign Office warning against travel and the re-imposition of 14 days of self-isolation for arriving passengers.
The UK is currently on 13.2, and Portugal’s rate increased from 18.1 to 21.1 in the three days to Monday.
The current convention is that the transport secretary tweets additions to the “no-go” list each Thursday evening, with quarantine coming into effect at 4am the following Monday.
Last Thursday, the Czech Republic was deemed high risk even though its coronavirus rate was only fractionally above 20.
Bar an implausibly sharp reduction in Portugal’s infection rate between now and Thursday, quarantine looks set to be re-imposed.
On Monday, 320 new infections were recorded in the country; The Independent calculates that the figure would need to dip below 100 for three days running for it to get clear.
Paul Charles of the PC travel consultancy, who has campaigned for testing as an alternative to two weeks of quarantine for arriving travellers, said: “It’s a pretty significant statement from the ambassador, who is clearly privy to what is happening on the ground in Portugal.
“Clearly his knowledge will be advising the Joint Biosecurity Centre – and affecting many thousands of people.
“But it shows no understanding of planning teams in airlines. You need at least two weeks to sort out your schedules.
“This is the problem with a short-term weekly review. It’s just another reason why it’s a badly thought-out policy.”
The government in Lisbon is furious at what it sees as an over-hasty reaction. In the past week, Portugal has intensified testing in care homes, which the authorities say has skewed the figures.
Fresh outbreaks, largely among young people, have flared up in the north of the country around Porto and along the Douro Valley, while the vast majority of tourists are in the south.
Portuguese officials will also question why Gibraltar appears to have been given special treatment. Even though the British overseas territory has a rate of 166, more than eight times the trigger level, it is still regarded as low risk.
Many travellers currently in Portugal appear to have already concluded that quarantine will be re-imposed from Saturday 5 September.
One-way fares on Ryanair from Lisbon to Manchester on Friday are currently selling at £270, while easyJet has no seats available from Faro, serving the Algarve, to any London airport on Thursday or Friday.
British Airways has cut the cost of a week’s holiday on the Algarve later in September, including flights to and from Heathrow and accommodation, to just £179.
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