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Coronavirus quarantine rules: Differences across UK 'confusing', Grant Shapps says

3 weeks ago 16
Tourists leave a hotel in Portimao, Algarve, PortugalImage copyright Getty Images

Differences in UK quarantine rules are "confusing" for travellers, Grant Shapps has admitted, as the nations split over restrictions to travel.

The transport secretary said he understood the frustration, as Scotland and Wales required Portugal and French Polynesia arrivals to isolate, while England and Northern Ireland held off.

Wales' rules, also including six Greek islands, began at 04:00 BST on Friday.

One travel expert said the quarantine policy was "in tatters".

And some holidaymakers from England say they have spent huge amounts of money to avoid quarantine that, for now, will not be in place.

While Wales' advice has already changed, arrivals to Scotland from Portugal and French Polynesia will also have to self-isolate from 04:00 on Saturday.

Portugal, Greece and French Polynesia are still on England and Northern Ireland's lists of travel corridors.

Mr Shapps told BBC Breakfast the difference in quarantine rules was similar to the way lockdown had been applied across the UK.

"It is similar unfortunately with the quarantining where we look at the data and then we do speak - but I'm afraid quite often come to slightly different outcomes which I appreciate is confusing for people," he said.

He described Portugal as being on a "borderline", adding that "the opinion of England and Northern Ireland is that it did not justify quarantine this week".

The seven-day infection rate in Portugal has increased from 15.3 to 23 per 100,000 people. This is above the threshold of 20 which is when the UK government generally considers triggering quarantine conditions.

The Department for Transport said decisions around adding or removing countries from England's quarantine list "take into account a range of factors" - including how many people are being tested.

"Portugal has drastically increased its testing capacity, as well as taking measures to control the spread of the virus," said a spokesperson, adding the situation was being monitored closely.

The latest quarantine rules introduced in Wales also apply to travellers from Gibraltar. The six Greek islands the rules apply to are Crete, Mykonos, Zakynthos (or Zante), Lesvos, Paros and Antiparos.

Scotland reintroduced self-isolation measures for arrivals from Greece earlier in the week, and since added Portugal and French Polynesia to its list of countries requiring quarantine.

"This week's data shows an increase in test positivity and cases per 100,000 in Portugal," said Scottish justice minister Humza Yousaf.

Greece's rate overall is below the "20 cases per 100,000" threshold, at 13.8 in the seven days to 2 September, down from 14.9 a week earlier.

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Media captionCoronavirus: How to fly during a global pandemic

Announcing that there were no additions or removals to England's quarantine exemption list, UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said on Thursday: "We continue to keep the travel corridor list under constant review and won't hesitate to remove countries if needed."

"Nonetheless, holidaymakers are reminded - 14-day quarantine countries can and do change at very short notice."

Northern Ireland's department of health also confirmed that it would not make any further changes at present.

The variety of rules across the four UK nations have drawn criticism from industry experts and holidaymakers.

"The quarantine policy is in tatters," said Paul Charles, chief executive of travel consultancy firm The PC Agency.

"Consumers are totally confused by the different approaches and it's impossible to understand the government's own criteria any more on when to add or remove a country."

He called for a change in strategy as the weekly announcements have caused "anxiety and financial pain" for consumers and travel firms.

Expensive new flights

In a normal year, more than two million Britons visit Portugal. Most head to the Algarve in the south, drawn by sunny Atlantic beaches, picturesque fishing villages and golf courses.

Some holidaymakers have told the BBC they paid as much as £1,000 for flights to get home from Portugal in anticipation of the rules changing.

Kelly, from Birmingham, and her family changed their flights home from the Algarve from Saturday to Friday at a cost of £900 to avoid potential quarantine because she did not want her children to miss out on two weeks of school.

The 45-year-old said the situation was "absolutely disgusting".

"It's cost us a lot more money and it's money we didn't need to spend now. We've lost an extra night in our villa - we won't get that back - we've got a hire car, so we're taking that back a day early."

A messy situation just got… messier

One aviation boss described travelling abroad right now as "quarantine roulette" because the list of destinations which are affected keeps changing.

But the governments in Westminster, Edinburgh and Cardiff are now clearly at odds over which countries pose a clear risk.

Portugal's infection rate is above the UK government's benchmark of 20 cases of the virus for every 100,000 people.

But the UK government has surprised us all and not added Portugal to the list for England. It's not clear why.

Greece is even more complicated as the Welsh government is opting for a policy where only people arriving from certain Greek islands have to self-isolate while Scotland has introduced a quarantine for arrivals from across Greece.

For months the travel industry has been lobbying the UK government for an approach where they consider particular regions in a country, but ministers in London are not keen on the idea.

The quarantine was already hard or impossible to police.

But discrepancies between different UK nations makes it even harder as someone could, theoretically, fly into Newcastle from Greece and drive into Scotland. That person should self-isolate for 14 days, but no-one will be checking.

Damian Martin had switched his holiday destination from Spain to Lagos, Portugal, in a bid to avoid having to quarantine. But as he will not be able to travel home to Swansea early, he will have to self-isolate when he returns.

"I will be able to self-isolate, I think, but I work for a supermarket so will have to check in with them," he said.

He added: "I'm supposed to be here eight nights. I might as well try to enjoy it."

Image copyright Damian Martin Image caption "Work had been full on so I decided to go," said Damian Martin

Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel, said: "Days of speculation around this announcement meant many people rushed to pay extortionate prices for flights back to England to avoid having to quarantine on their return - only to now find out there was no need.

"The government knows this and yet it continues to offer no clarity around how these decisions are made."

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