The Guardian view on the Portugal travel U-turn: red, amber and grey | Editorial

The UK government’s decision to move Portugal from the green to the amber foreign travel list is messy, dubious and disturbingly characteristic of Boris Johnson at his worst. Most immediately, in human terms, it is an instant inconvenience, including financially, to UK travellers to Portugal. Many will have assumed they would get more notice if their plans were under review. To most, the decision came out of a clear blue sky.

The government has dumped visitors from the UK with a difficult choice. They can scramble home before the Tuesday deadline – rebooking flights, and the necessary Covid tests. Or they can remain in Portugal and accept that they will have to quarantine when they return. Disruption for those about to fly out, and who have now had to cancel, is almost as bad. It is a rubbish way to treat citizens. It is also a casual rudeness to Portugal, which has stricter Covid protocols than Britain, and which put itself out for UK visitors when the traffic-light lists were being introduced.

The hit to the travel industry is devastating. After a write-off year in 2020, the industry has been gearing up for a resumption of foreign holidays. Bookings have been increasing as the vaccine rollout has expanded and lockdowns have been eased. Expectations of further easing have been allowed to grow, fanned by optimistic statements from government ministers, boosterish briefings to favoured newspapers and encouragements from tourist countries such as Spain and Greece.

The Portugal decision not only brings the process to an abrupt halt in that country. It also casts a chill of uncertainty over all the others. Consumers’ reactions are easy to predict. Those who have already booked foreign escapes for the school summer holidays now face not being able to go and losing money. They will rightly be angry. Those who have waited more cautiously will be more deterred than ever. The knock-on consequences for holiday companies, hotels and airlines are stark. This was all avoidable.

It would be unfair to blame everything on Mr Johnson. The Covid pandemic is a global crisis, not a national one. Ministers cannot foresee the future. Consumers must also take some responsibility for their choices. Having said all that, the government’s Portugal decision is grimly familiar. The mixed messaging, the lack of clarity, the dithering followed by sudden U-turns, and the almost casual abandonment of individuals to make the best of things, are all insultingly familiar.

The underlying concern here is the same one that has recurred so often during the pandemic. Faced with a choice between encouraging people that things will get back to normal and the reality that this will not happen without stricter controls, the government always privileges the former. Then it is confronted with the inescapability of the latter. It then acts too slowly and without decisiveness.

A better government would have been more honest. It would have said from the start that foreign travel this year was unlikely and, if case numbers rose and variants created new pressures, undesirable. Both are now happening. Mr Johnson, as usual, wanted the best of both worlds. He allowed flights to and from the UK to continue when they should have been curtailed. He introduced a traffic-light system that was less red, amber and green than red, amber and grey.

Mr Johnson may have adopted a more cautious approach since January. But he has staked his authority on the vaccines’ ability to allow him to end Covid controls on 21 June. As that date nears, reality is again colliding with politics. The move against Portuguese travel is the reverse of mature policymaking. It is a desperate attempt to hold on to the 21 June deadline. But it comes amid increasing signs that yet another arbitrary official date target is obstructing a sustained and effective approach to the pandemic.

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