The UK has to be "tough" on international travel rules to protect the progress of lockdown easing, health secretary Matt Hancock said, following Portugal's controversial removal from the UK's travel green list.
Reports on Friday suggested the June 21st unlocking in England will be scaled down, with social distancing and the wearing of face coverings to continue, over concerns about new coronavirus variants.
Ministers have blamed fears over importing the so-called Nepal variant — a mutation that some think could have properties helping it to beat vaccines — for the decision to move Portugal to the amber list.
It means people arriving in the UK from Portugal after 4am on Tuesday will need to self-isolate at home for 10 days in a change that has left holidaymakers scrambling for pricey flights home in a bid to beat the quarantine deadline.
The requirement for travellers to take a coronavirus test in the three days before a flight to the UK departs is also creating difficulties for people in Portugal.
But despite the hurdles facing those returning, Mr Hancock said the UK government had been able to ease restrictions at home due to tight controls on travel rules.
His comments were made as the UK recorded its highest number of new confirmed coronavirus cases – 6,238 – since late March, according to official figures, with the Delta variant, first identified in India, fuelling a fresh surge.
The Portuguese government has described the UK’s decision to remove the country from its green list of approved destinations as “unfathomable” while tourism bosses have said the “unfair” move is likely to affect the summer season.
Portugal’s foreign ministry questioned the thinking behind the move and said it was doing everything it could to protect its citizens and visitors.
“We take note of the British decision to remove Portugal from the travel ‘green list’, a decision whose logic is unfathomable,” it said in an unusually strongly worded statement. “Portugal continues to carry out its prudent and gradual deconfinement plan, with clear rules for the safety of those who live here or visit us.”
Rise in cases
On Thursday, Portugal registered 769 new cases of Covid-19 – almost double the average of 370 daily cases recorded at the beginning of May.
The Portuguese government reopened the country to British visitors with negative PCR test results on May 17th. Residents in the city of Porto expressed concerns about a potential increase in cases last weekend after thousands of British fans arrived in Porto to attend the Champions League football final and were seen drinking in crowds and ignoring the rules on wearing masks.
Despite the concerns, the number of new cases per 100,000 inhabitants in the past two weeks is 66.4 – about 50 per cent below the threshold at which the Portuguese government has said a “handbrake” would have to be imposed on easing restrictions and stricter measures would be reintroduced.
On Wednesday, prime minister António Costa said the country was in “conditions to move on with the deconfinement plan” because of the high level of vaccination and low number of hospitalisations.
Mr Costa announced a plan to continue easing restrictions from June 14th, which will include lifting mandatory working from home and letting restaurants, cafes and shops remain open until 1am.
Portugal's president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, said the country was in a far better place than it had been a few months ago, adding that a balance needed to be struck and that "health fundamentalism" ought to be avoided. – PA/Guardian