UK drops Portugal from safe travel list in major blow to airlines

·3-min read

By Sarah Young and Kate Holton

LONDON (Reuters) -Britain removed Portugal from its quarantine-free travel list on Thursday, essentially shutting down the UK's international leisure market just weeks after it reopened and sparking outrage from embattled airlines.

The industry questioned why British people could not travel when the country had some of the highest vaccine rates in the world. Portugal said the decision lacked logic. Airports demanded a cash lifeline.

Transport minister Grant Shapps said however that coronavirus variants had been detected in Portugal, forcing the UK to shut off the one big European holiday destination it had sanctioned and prioritise its national reopening instead.

Britain also failed to add any more countries to its so-called green-list for travel, angering easyJet, British Airways and London's Heathrow Airport which accused the government of trying to seal the country off from the rest of the world.

"It's a safety-first measure," Shapps said, adding that it was designed to prevent any further coronavirus variants from arriving and threatening the planned final stage of England's reopening on June 21.

Britain tentatively relaunched travel on May 17 following more than four months of lockdown, using a traffic-light system where arrivals from green-listed countries do not have to quarantine. Arrivals from amber countries must quarantine at home, while red countries require expensive hotel quarantine.

Britain also added seven more countries to its red list.

Over the last three weeks, Portugal proved a lifeline for the industry which had expected a wider reopening to follow. It now faces weeks of cancellations and uncertainty.

"This decision essentially cuts the UK off from the rest of the world," easyJet said.

The Airport Operators Association said the government must provide a financial bailout to save jobs if it blocks another holiday season. "Summer 2021 is shaping up to be worse than last summer, which was the worst in aviation history," it said.

The industry added that the UK would be left behind as governments across Europe start to open up travel.

"In the week that the Prime Minister hosts G7 leaders to launch his government's vision of Global Britain, he's sending a message that the UK will remain isolated from the rest of the world and closed to most of its G7 partners," Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye said.

SHARES TUMBLE

Shares in easyJet, British Airways-owner IAG and Jet2 were down 5% on fears that Europe would lose another peak travel season, when millions of Britons usually head to southern Europe in July and August.

Ryanair and TUI, which has a big German customer base as well as British, lost 4%.

Data provided by Cirium showed that Ryanair and easyJet had been scheduled to operate more than 500 flights from the UK to Portugal in June. The airlines had all added flights to the country in May.

The industry is already weakened by 15 months of lockdowns, forcing it to cut tens of thousands of jobs and take on debt, and it will be severely challenged if there is no reopening this summer.

The news is also likely to sound the alarm in France, Spain, Greece and Italy where thousands of jobs rely on the arrival of high-spending British tourists each summer.

Portugal's foreign ministry said it did not understand the "logic" behind the decision. "We took note of Britain's decision to remove Portugal from the green list," the ministry said on Twitter, adding that it would continue to ease its lockdown rules "gradually".

(Reporting by William James, Sarah Young, Paul Sandle and Kate Holton, additional reporting by Catarina Demony in Lisbon, editing by Andrew Heavens and Kirsten Donovan)