Differences in UK quarantine rules are “confusing” for travellers, Grant Shapps has admitted, as the four nations take varying approaches to countries with rising Covid-19 cases.
The transport secretary acknowledged people’s frustrations, as Scotland and Wales asked arrivals from Portugal and parts of Greece to isolate, but England and Northern Ireland held off.
Wales’ rules, including only six Greek islands, began at 04:00 BST on Friday.
Travel firms called for urgent clarity.
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. Scotland has already reintroduced quarantine for arrivals from Greece.
The measures will affect those who reside in Wales and Scotland but return to the UK via England.
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”.
‘Jumped the gun’
Mr Shapps told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Scotland “sort of jumped the gun” by introducing restrictions for arrivals from the whole of Greece.
“I’m very keen and do try to coordinate… with the other administrations so we can both announce at the same time, and ideally both announce the same things, and this week that didn’t work out,” he said.
The seven-day infection rate in Portugal has increased from 15.3 to 23 per 100,000 people, above the threshold of 20.
Mr Shapps explained that cases per 100,000 people was just one measure taken into account by the UK’s Joint Biosecurity Centre, with the test positivity rate also a factor.
The proportion of tests proving positive in Portugal was lower than it was when quarantine restrictions were lifted last month, Mr Shapps added.
But the minister warned: “As I constantly say… we will have to move quickly if the figures change.”
‘Money we didn’t need to spend’
Some holidaymakers have told the BBC they paid around £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.
“It’s cost us a lot more money and it’s money we didn’t need to spend now,” she said.
Ron, who was preparing to travel to Manchester from Faro Airport on Friday, told BBC News flights for three people cost over £1,000.
“It would be good if governments could all get together… and come up with one set of policies which are applied reasonably consistently,” he said.
The latest quarantine rules introduced in Wales, which also apply to travellers from Gibraltar, affect six Greek islands – Crete, Mykonos, Zakynthos, Lesvos, Paros and Antiparos.
Welsh health minister Vaughan Gething told Today that Wales has seen 30 coronavirus cases from four different flights from Zakynthos, two of which landed in England.
“I did not feel that there was any course of action other than taking some form of action,” he said.
Scotland reintroduced self-isolation measures for arrivals from Greece earlier in the week, and has 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.
Devolution in action
It may look confusing and it may leave holidaymakers and other travellers scratching their heads as to why the quarantine rules are different depending on where you live in the UK. But this is devolution in action.
The new emergency coronavirus legislation introduced earlier this year gave the devolved administrations new powers to tackle the pandemic, adding to their existing control over many domestic issues.
Their chief medical officers give ministers their own own advice, though they do confer with their counterparts and through UK-wide committees.
Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast have already shown a willingness to move at their own pace over easing lockdown restrictions and reopening schools.
With the R number (the speed at which the virus is spreading or receding) rising above the overall UK level in Scotland, it is perhaps no surprise that Holyrood wants to take its own initiatives on quarantine.
The much-publicised flight from Greece to Cardiff, with several cases traced to passengers, is another illustration of why a devolved administration has taken action.
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.
Northern Ireland will not make further changes to quarantine rules at present, its department of health said.
The variety of rules across the four UK nations has 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.”
It comes as the level of coronavirus among the community in England remains “unchanged”, according to Office for National Statistics estimates based on a survey during the week ending 25 August.
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