Portugal in charm offensive over UK air bridge decision
The Portuguese authorities have begun a charm offensive with the British Government this week in an attempt to get London to remove Portugal from the Covid-19 risk list of countries.
By Natasha Donn and Chris Graeme
It comes after last Friday’s shock decision by the UK authorities to leave Portugal out of its ‘green list of air bridges’ meaning that while UK citizens can holiday in Lisbon, Porto and the Algarve, they face the prospect of a two week period in total self-isolation on their return to the UK in what seems to be an arbitrary decision which neither reflects the science nor an understanding of the true situation.
The Spectator said: “Portugal has recorded an impressively low Covid-19 infection and death rate (with just 159 deaths per million people, compared to 652 in the UK), especially compared to neighbouring Spain (607 deaths per million people).
“The impact could have been more severe in a country where nearly one on three people are aged over 65, and which has the lowest number of intensive care beds per capita in all of Europe.”
Yet, British authorities didn’t look at any of this, nor did they take into account Portugal’s robust testing programme. They essentially made the decision to hamstring the travel industry that annually brings in 2.4 million British tourists every summer, by counting new infections per 100,000 inhabitants.
Given that Portugal’s new infection rates are mostly asymptomatic, dealt with promptly (19 parishes in Lisbon are still in a new form of lockdown) and hundreds of kilometres from the Algarve – and mindful of the fact that Portugal’s lethality is massively lower than that of the UK – the rule is, as foreign affairs minister Augusto Santos Silva has described it, patently “absurd”.
The absurdity isn’t the point. The point is the decision is destroying livelihoods. Unemployment has risen in the region of the Algarve by over 200% and the low season hasn’t even started.
Earlier this week, the OECD estimated the region could end up losing 40% of its businesses.
With the government rushing to create support programmes and the arrival of the much-lauded EU aid still months away, the situation could hardly be worse.
Cases in the Algarve have never been an issue. In the four months since the virus started affecting Western Europe, the Algarve has only recorded 14 deaths. There have been 651 cases of infection — with no new cases reported since the start of the week — and only 15 of them have been serious. The Algarve has the lowest number of deaths per region on mainland Portugal. Even the largely rural Alentejo had more deaths (17).
Nevertheless, the UK, with over 250,000 people infected and 44,400 deaths overall, deems the Algarve a ‘no-go travel destination’
On Saturday, the weekend newspaper Expresso stated, “The decision from Boris Johnson’s government has left the region in shock.”
The President of the regional tourist board João Fernandes said: “We are bitterly disappointed, and we do not understand. This situation is unfair and damaging for tourism in the Algarve. We are being penalised for telling the truth,” he added — alluding to suspicions that other countries are being less than transparent about their situations.
British citizens running hospitality businesses in the region admit to feeling that they have been thrown under a bus. Writing on social media, Pickwicks Tavern in Olhos d’Água wrote: “So Boris and Co have decided that Portugal, with its 1,598 total deaths from Covid 19 is deemed ‘unsafe’. Yes, there has been a ‘hot-spot’ in Lisbon, of exactly the same type that has caused Leicester in the UK to go into lockdown, but this hasn’t stopped pubs etc, across the rest of the UK opening, which could cause a rash of new infections and closures.”
Dominic Jones, a second-home resident said, “Like so many of us Brits who call Portugal home (or second home), I’m frankly embarrassed by the UK Government’s decision to exclude Portugal from quarantine exemption. It’s another sorry mark in how poorly our Government have handled the crisis.
“Know that we are undaunted . So many of us are still going to travel (in August) to the Algarve but please, please urge the Portuguese Government not to reciprocate with a quarantine in Portugal. Frankly, I feel ashamed at the nerve of our own Government given our terrible death toll when compared to a country like Portugal,” he added.
Serra Hughes, however, was upset about less than clear information from the Portuguese authorities. “My husband and I live in Europe but are not citizens and just have resident permits. We have been checking and checking the visitportugal.com website to see if the entry restrictions have been changed, but not yet. Soon we will give up and go to Italy instead! Frustrating when we see everywhere in the news that Portugal is open and wants tourists, but the official information is unchanged so we can’t book flights,” she said.
And US citizen Jim Leland was equally upset about what he called a lack of clear information for US citizens: “l have flights booked with my wife to Lisbon on August 1. We are planning on staying a little over three weeks and possibly purchasing a property while we’re there. As it stands today, it doesn’t look like will be able to enter the country. What a complete shame for all of us because neither my wife, myself or anyone in our family has tested positive for COVID-19. We’d be happy to show negative results when we enter the country, yet we can’t find anything about protocols for letting in US citizens in the very near future”.
Writer Peter Taylor returned to the UK on a practically empty plane from Faro last week, posting over Facebook: “The Portuguese feel hard done by. They are proud of being our oldest ally from way back in 1386 and are always kind and welcoming to us Brits. They deserve better. The quarantine of air passengers should not apply to Portugal. We should be able to pile over there now, no worries, just like people going to France and Spain”.
“I’ve never asked anyone to share one of my posts before because they are pretty random, but please share and give some support to the sunny Portuguese,” he added.
Foreign office talks are said to be ongoing and this week and Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa announced that his foreign secretary had had a long talk on the issue with UK Government minister Dominic Raab.
António Costa had tweeted a graph appearing to show the UK had a much higher number of cases per 100,000 people than the Algarve.
The Portuguese PM added: “Which is the safest place to stay? You are welcome to spend a safe holiday in the Algarve! #UK#visitportugal.”
And Portugal’s President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa called it a lesson from history. “When we’re down we need others. When things are going great or we think they are, sometimes we forget others.”
A report on TV new channel SIC Notícias clearly showed that some UK tourists that did brave coming to the Algarve despite the quarantine and have been equally critical of the UK government.
Fingers are tightly crossed, but it is already fast approaching mid-July and the Algarve’s tourism sector is in despair.