The UK is currently in a diplomatic row with the Portuguese government over quarantine, as the Home Affairs minister, Eduardo Cabrita, denied the country is high risk, and claimed the UK was in a worse position in its response to COVID-19.
With Portugal facing the threat of exclusion from the UK’s “air bridge” plan, Cabrita said that Portugal was “manifestly not where the risk is,” and people should “just compare the data” to verify that.
“We are, namely with the United Kingdom, highlighting that which is obvious: Portugal has better public health indicators and better pandemic response indicators than the United Kingdom,” he said.
“So there’s no reason, according to all the comparative criteria, for the existence of any application of quarantine rules on return to the United Kingdom.”
His comments, reported in the newspaper Diario de Noticias, come as Britain prepares to announce up to 50 countries on Wednesday to which holidaymakers can fly from July 6 without having to quarantine for 14 days on their return.
Portugal along with Sweden are understood to be two of the nations in Europe currently judged by the UK’s Joint Biosecurity Centre to be potential “red category” countries under the traffic light system that will clear green and amber-rated countries for quarantine-free travel.
The controversy centres on an outbreak of coronavirus in and around Lisbon, forcing the government to re-impose a limited lockdown in 19 parishes and curb opening hours in the city with all but supermarkets, restaurants and service stations closing at 8pm.
Portuguese epidemiologists said the localised outbreaks in the capital, accounting for 85 per cent of the country's 457 new cases yesterday, is limited to poorer parts of the city where tourists rarely go.
Moreover, the Algarve, the third most popular destination in Europe for UK holidaymakers, has a small fraction of the cases. Southern Portugal has recorded just 612 cases since the start of the pandemic, and only 91 in the past week. No COVID-19 patients have died there for nearly two months.
“Algarve and Madeira are two places that COVID-19 is with a low expression, so I could not believe [reports of Portugal’s possible exclusion],” Francisco Calheiros, Portuguese Tourism Confederation president, told press.
He said he came away from two meetings with the British Ambassador to Portugal at the end of last week feeling positive, after being told Anglo-Portuguese expert meetings “went rather well.”
“I cannot foresee a summer without British people and so I’m hoping that everything runs very well,” he said, underlining that it was critical to “not lose the idea that the right place for British to come on holidays is Portugal.”
Citing the work Portugal did behind the scenes to secure the final of the Champions League in Lisbon in August, Mr Calheiros said he believed politics and lobbying could be blamed if Portugal were left off the list.
“If the British are forbidden to come to Portugal, someone is going to profit,” he said. “If you are a typical English family with two kids who wants to come to a beach, have a summer vacation, If you are not going to Portugal, you have another alternative and that alternative will profit with them. Yes, I believe there are some politics. Of course there are.”
Some experts believe Portugal is suffering because of its honesty in reporting COVID-19, having tested more people per 100,000 of the population than all but five other countries in Europe.
Prime Minister António Costa said the Government was focused on protecting public health and “complete transparency,” rather than trying to look good by testing less or failing to record deaths.
He said it was difficult to compare Portugal, which had tested 108,000 people per million, with a country that may have tested just 20,000 per million. Portugal which saw its R reproduction rate rise marginally to 1.08 at the end of last week is, however, at risk due to the UK criteria.
This includes prevalence of COVID-19, whether the level of the disease in a country is rising and the reliability of the country’s data. It is understood that officials at Public Health England (PHE), which is working with the Biosecurity Centre, are concerned that there is community spread of the disease in Portugal, unlike the outbreak in Germany where it is confined to workers at a single factory.