The Lisbon government has slammed the UK government’s decision not to lift quarantine measures for Portugal as “deeply unjust”, “absurd” and having no basis in science.
Augusto Santos Silva, foreign minister, said it was difficult to understand how Britain could impose quarantine measures on travellers from Portugal when it had “28 times more coronavirus deaths”.
In a blow to an economy that welcomed about 2m British holidaymakers last year, the UK decision excludes mainland Portugal from the more than 70 countries from which tourists can return to England without facing a 14-day quarantine on their return.
The minister also drew a comparison with what he described as the safe, well-ordered beaches of the Algarve, and the recent crowded beach scenes in Bournemouth.
He said it was a “sad moment” in relations between the two countries, but added that Portugal would not retaliate by imposing similar quarantine measures on visitors from the UK.
Portugal’s opposition health spokesman said that not lifting quarantine measures for Portugal was a “shocking decision” that was “not based on any scientific or rational criteria”.
Ricardo Baptista Leite, head of public health at Lisbon’s Catholic University and health spokesman for the centre-right Social Democrats, the main opposition party, said: “It makes no sense to green-light countries such as France, the Netherlands and Belgium, but not Portugal, which has one of the lowest Covid-19 case fatality rates in the world.”
He added: “When Britain was at its darkest Covid hour, with its prime minister in an intensive care bed with a Portuguese nurse at his side, we never at any moment considered blocking our British friends from coming here.” Portugal “will not forget being blacklisted by Britain in a decision that has no scientific basis,” he said.
Tourism accounts for about 14 per cent of Portugal’s gross domestic product, with British tourists estimated to have generated €3.3bn in gross revenue last year.
The snub by the UK government reflects how international praise for Portugal’s initial response to the pandemic has given way to concern as it records more daily new cases per 100,000 inhabitants than any other European country, except Sweden, which was also left off the UK list. The problem has led several other countries, including Denmark, Austria and the Czech Republic, to restrict entry to visitors from Portugal.
England is lifting quarantine measures for countries much harder hit by Covid-19 and with higher mortality rates than Portugal, such as Spain, Italy and France. New infection rates in these countries, however, have fallen, while the rate in Portugal has not fallen significantly since the end of May.
In neighbouring Spain, for example, where more than 28,300 people have died from Covid-19, compared with fewer than 1,600 in Portugal, the average daily level of new cases per 1m inhabitants has been significantly lower than in Portugal for more than a month.
About 80 per cent of Portugal’s new coronavirus cases since mid-May have been located in the greater Lisbon and Tagus valley regions, specifically in 19 adjoining neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Lisbon, home to about 700,000 people.
Stricter lockdown measures have been brought back for these districts and additional health workers assigned to the area. Overcrowded housing in poor suburbs, casual labour in the construction industry and public transport have been suggested as possible sources of the coronavirus clusters around Lisbon.
António Costa, the prime minister, however, was reported to have expressed his frustration at a recent meeting with health officials over their inability to pinpoint the precise causes of the outbreaks around the capital.
However, Mr Baptista Leite said the Algarve and Porto, where most British visitors to Portugal stay, had “very low coronavirus numbers”.
The incidence of coronavirus in Portugal is currently about 410 confirmed cases per 100,000 inhabitants, higher than in Italy or France, but lower than in Spain or the UK. Portugal has also tested more than 1m people, the sixth highest number in Europe.