The Portuguese ambassador has accused Britain of causing “immense” and potentially “lasting” damage to his country with its travel ban, as he claimed its decision was based on unclear science. Writing for The Telegraph, Manuel Lobo Antunes said he would “make no attempt” to hide his disappointment at the British government’s decision to exclude Portugal from a list of 74 places exempted from the UK’s 14-day quarantine.
He said this was compounded by the anomaly where the Portuguese islands of Madeira and the Azores had been given a clean bill of health by the Foreign Office yet were still subject to UK quarantine. His comments will escalate the diplomatic row with Britain following a coronavirus outbreak in and around Lisbon leading to UK holidaymakers being barred from the whole of Portugal, even though its most popular destination, the Algarve, has some of the lowest rates in Europe.
UK government sources indicated they would only change Portugal’s status once it was “safe” to do so, although it is understood there are negotiations over whether Madeira – which has direct flights to the UK – and the Azores could be exempted earlier.
Mr Antunes claimed the UK’s scientific arguments were “lacking in detail” and that the economic impact of keeping Portugal under quarantine is “immense”. Many of the 1,005 flights which would have carried up to 184,000 people from the UK to Portugal will have to be cancelled, data from the analytics firm Cirium show. Each year the Algarve welcomes two million Britons, accounting for a fifth of its tourist income.
Mr Antunes acknowledged the Covid-19 rate of 22.1 cases per 100,000 of the population – three times that of England – was “higher than we would like,” but was “in decline” after a lockdown in 19 Lisbon parishes.
He claimed that the Portuguese government – which has the sixth most comprehensive testing regime in the EU – had been penalised for a more efficient approach that had detected more infections. António Costa, the Portuguese prime minister, said the treatment of his country was “manifestly unfair” and accused the EU of failing to create uniform criteria for opening borders, which had led to “extraordinary discrepancies” and even “cases of pure retaliation”.
He said: “There are countries that were recently placed on red lists, not because they have a high incidence of Covid-19, but because they had placed others on red lists.”
A UK government source said: “We want to see a return to normal international travel with Portugal, but we can only act once we are certain that we can do so safely and responsibly. In deciding which countries and territories to include in this initial list, we have been guided by the science.
“We will continue to take an objective, evidence-based approach. As the risk from Covid-19 reduces, we hope we will be able to make travel between our two countries easier.”
Potential additions to the list of countries and territories are due on July 27 but officials suggested countries could be removed or added before then depending on Covid-19 rates.