Sergio Dionisio, 42, no longer knows whether to make a joke or explode in anger. The Portuguese, married to a Spanish woman from Santiago de Compostela, has been in London for more than twenty years at the head of a modest but successful office cleaning services company. His refuge is the house he bought long ago in the Algarve, on the southern coast of his native country. When, at the beginning of September of last year, the Government of Boris Johnson began to get nervous and the rumor broke out – confirmed days later – that the “travel corridor” between the United Kingdom and Portugal was going to be canceled, Sergio had to pay an exorbitant amount for the return tickets of the three members of the family: his wife, his son and him. The hall had only just gone into effect on August 22. Britons who enjoy their vacations on the Portuguese beaches these days have been warned by surprise that, if they are not back before 5 a.m. (Spanish peninsular time) next Tuesday, they will have to undergo a mandatory quarantine of ten days.
The few return flights available have exploded. British Airways charges more than 400 euros for the Faro-London route if it takes place this Sunday or Monday. The same trip, as of Tuesday, is reduced to 160 euros. “Luckily we had already planned our return for Monday,” Sergio says by phone. “This is crazy, and it doesn’t make any sense. They say that they have detected here two cases of the so-called Nepal variant, of which nobody knows anything. This is full of English and they have serious problems to return. For restaurants and bars it is going to be devastating ”.
The reasons for the lurch in the Johnson Administration’s travel recommendations, which have managed to irritate the world, are more political and psychological than statistical. His decision to practically isolate himself from the world to preserve the domestic gains made in the fight against the pandemic threaten to deliver a coup de grace to the tourism industry. “It is now clear that the Government’s national health strategy continues to prevent any significant resumption of international travel,” said Mark Tanzar, executive director of the British Association of Travel Agents (ABTA). “The recovery of a sector that moves billions of pounds cannot be achieved if the main tourist destinations remain off the green list.”
Spain, France, Italy, Greece and now Portugal have been left out of a list of eleven safe countries or destinations in which now only the United States, Australia, Israel or Gibraltar are. In fact, no EU country is on that list. The next review, which Downing Street conducts every three weeks, will be June 28. It will be difficult for the situation to change much. After a winter of hardship, with overflowing hospitals and thousands more deaths (the United Kingdom already accumulates more than 130,000 deaths from covid-19), Johnson and a relevant part of his ministers, led by Health, Matt Hancock, they are reluctant to put at risk the recovery achieved with the combination of four months of confinement and a dizzying vaccination campaign: 40 million citizens, 60% of the population, have already received a first dose of immunization. About 30 million have completed the schedule, with two injections.
It is an especially delicate moment. For many reasons. A final rush is necessary to ensure that the entire adult population is immunized as soon as possible. The new Indian variant (now known as the “Delta variant”) is on track to be the predominant one in the country, and has accelerated a rate of infections that had practically flattened by mid-May. According to the National Statistical Office, some 100,000 people tested positive for coronavirus in the week of May 24-30. 60,000 more cases than the previous week. An increase of two thirds. However, the numbers of deaths and hospitalizations remain very low. The Johnson government wants to verify the true efficacy of the vaccines against the new variants – in Portugal the aforementioned mutation of Nepal would have been detected – and preserve their precarious success.
The conservative politician, whose popularity has only just begun to rise, promised his fellow citizens that on June 21 the Freedom day (Freedom Day) and the United Kingdom would return to a situation of practically normality, in which mass events would return and work from home would no longer be recommended. Johnson is willing to put the conquest of that domestic freedom before the vacation dreams of hundreds of thousands of Britons. “We are absolutely determined to keep our country safe, especially in the face of new variants from abroad,” said Hancock during the meeting of the G-7 health ministers held this Friday. Tourism restrictions are not an easy decision, he added, but they are essential to protect the success of the vaccination campaign. “If they have finally taken Portugal off the green list, citizens’ confidence in safety when traveling is going to be completely ruined. We are going to see how reservations that had already been made are canceled and the concern is going to spread even more among all travel agencies ”, warns Virginia Messina, vice president of the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC). “There are many countries with a level of vaccination similar to the British one, and contagion figures as low as those of the United Kingdom. The possibility of traveling to these destinations should be restored as soon as possible ”.
There is also the suspicion, which already occurred last summer, that the British Government would be trying to promote the so-called “staycation”(A play on words that combines stay, stay, and vacation, vacations), a way to keep at home the money saved during months of forced confinement. But it is a two-way weapon, because the United Kingdom’s tourist offer does not have the capacity or the attractiveness of countries like Spain, which millions of British people go to every year. And because the restrictions imposed also act as a brake on that other more cultural tourism that Great Britain offers. According to association calculations VisitBritain, 2021 will close with an estimated visitor revenue of around € 60 billion. Two years earlier, the UK had received more than 105 billion of its foreign visitors.