English tourists in Greece and Portugal have been spared the cost and chaos of rushing back to the UK after the British government defied expectations and maintained quarantine-free travel from both countries for the time being.
But in another break from the previous UK-wide approach to the issue, the Welsh government added mainland Portugal and Gibraltar to its quarantine list, and expanded the number of Greek destinations subject to the rules. Scotland also added Portugal and the country’s justice secretary, Humza Yousaf, tweeted that Gibraltar was “high up our watch list of countries we are monitoring closely”. Travellers returning from anywhere in Greece already have to quarantine on arrival in Scotland.
It had been expected that ministers would reimpose the mandatory 14-day quarantine for arrivals in England from Portugal, with the rolling seven-day total of infections per 100,000 people well above 20, which is seen as a threshold.
Similarly, Greek authorities had this week urged England to not follow Scotland and Wales in imposing coronavirus restrictions on those coming back from Greece.
But in a tweet on Thursday, Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, said: “We continue to keep the travel corridor list under constant review & won’t hesitate to remove countries if needed.
“However, there are no English additions or removals today. Nonetheless, holidaymakers are reminded – 14-day quarantine countries can & do change at very short notice.”
It comes as calls grow from industry and some MPs for testing at airports. A letter from Heathrow airport and airline groups to the US and UK governments called for a trial to help open up Atlantic routes, saying: “We believe that in the immediate absence of a vaccine, testing of passengers in aviation provides the best and most effective frontline defence.” The issue of the UK’s quarantine system will be debated in parliament next week.
Under the government’s quarantine system, there is a mandatory two-week period of self-isolation for arrivals from all countries aside from those specifically put on an official list of safe destinations.
The decisions, which are made by the new Joint Biosecurity Centre, are based not just on absolute infection levels, but other factors including the speed of any increase and the perceived reliability of information.
All the UK nations have generally acted in unison with their list of restricted countries. But with Greece, travellers arriving in Scotland will face a 14-day quarantine, while those in England will not.
Wales had tightened the rules only for people coming back from Zakynthos, or Zante, which has been linked to a series of Welsh cases. In a statement, the Welsh government said this had now been expanded to also take in Mykonos, Lesvos, Paros and Antiparos, and Crete.
Vaughan Gething, the Welsh health minister, said: “This action is being taken as a result of a large number of cases of coronavirus [that] have been imported into Wales from tourists returning from the Greek islands, in particular. In the last week, there have been more than 20 cases confirmed in passengers on one flight from Zante to Cardiff.”
Wales is also imposing quarantine for arrivals from mainland Portugal – not Madeira or the Azores – as well as Gibraltar and French Polynesia. Scotland has also brought in quarantine for French Polynesia.
Changes are usually announced on a Thursday afternoon or evening, with travellers given until 4am on Saturday to avoid quarantine.
When France was taken off the safe list of destination in mid-August, many thousands of travellers scrambled for plane and ferry tickets to get back to the UK before the restrictions came into force.
The government can also add countries more rapidly if there is particular concern at the spread of Covid-19, as happened with Spain in July. This happened so quickly that Shapps himself was on holiday in the country, and had to enter quarantine when he returned.
Some travellers booked early returns from Greece or Portugal in expectation of meeting a similar fate.
Kelly Jones and her family changed their flights home from the Algarve from Saturday to Friday to ensure her children would not miss out on two weeks of school.
Jones, 45, said she paid Jet2 £900 on Monday to bring their flights home to Birmingham forward a day in anticipation of quarantine measures being reintroduced for people returning from Portugal.
She told the PA news agency that and her husband took the decision after monitoring the seven-day infection rate for Portugal, which reached 23 per 100,000 on Wednesday – . She said: “The government just change the goalposts left, right and centre at the moment. It’s embarrassing. They don’t make things clear enough. They say they need the rate under 20 and it’s gone above that this week, so why wouldn’t you think it would go on the quarantine list tonight?”
The quarantine rules apply to everyone apart from selected groups of people such as freight drivers, very regular business travellers, and politicians or other dignitaries.
Before arriving in the UK, travellers must fill out a form detailing where they have been, and where they will stay if they have to quarantine. Those in quarantine cannot leave the address beyond emergencies. While hundreds of thousands of spot checks have been carried out, fewer than a dozen fines have been imposed for breaching the rules.