East’s travel industry left reeling as traffic light system sows chaos

Passengers queue for the Ryanair and easyJet check-in desks at Faro airport in Portugal

Passengers queue for the Ryanair and easyJet check-in desks at Faro airport in Portuga to fly back to the UK before Tuesday's 4am quarantine deadline - Credit: RICHARD FURLONG/PA

East Anglian travel operators are counting the cost of the government’s “opaque” traffic light system — after the return of bleary-eyed holidaymakers from Portugal.

The region’s travel sector was left reeling after a series of announcements over red, amber and green ratings for countries and initial confusion over what the amber listing signalled.

The risk-based system determines the quarantine and coronavirus testing requirements people face when returning to the UK. 

Portugal was moved from the green to amber, catching many holidaymakers by surprise. It left thousands of UK tourists scrambling to get home before new quarantine rules came into force on Tuesday (June 8) morning. The government said Portugal was added to the amber list to guard against variants of the virus. Those arriving after the 4am deadline have to self-isolate at home for 10 days. 

Industry operatives are calling for a transparent assessment system for countries.

The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) urged the government to scrap the “failed and damaging” traffic light system to save the UK travel and tourism sector from “total collapse”.

Nick Lee, owner of North Walsham-based Broadland Travel Worldchoice, said the crisis has had a devastating effect on his business which couldn’t be made up by low-margin ‘staycation’ holidays. He has had to cut his workforce from five to four after suffering a £180k turnover deficit last year — and a best-case scenario this year of around 8% of his normal sales.

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“The government has not learnt the lessons from last year’s traffic light system,” he said. “We are all very worried — especially as we have no clarity.”

He was “disappointed and confused” by the government’s approach, he said.

“The traffic light system is not fit for purpose,” he said. Decisions appeared to be “purely political” where the industry wanted a clear, transparent, science-based approach, he said.

Liddy Pleasants, who heads up family adventure holiday specialists Stubborn Mule at Ipswich, said before May 17, it was widely understood within the industry that amber would mean travel would be possible but with some restrictions — which she felt was “a reasonable compromise”.

“It took those of us in the industry entirely by surprise when it was announced that in fact amber didn’t mean ‘travel with caution’ but in fact ‘avoid all travel’,” she said.

“The moving of Portugal from the green to the amber list, and the lack of additional countries being added to the green list, just three weeks later was catastrophic. Any glimmer of increased confidence in the industry was immediately extinguished,” she said.

The UK ought to be reaping the benefits of its successful vaccine roll-out, she added.

“The US and Europe are opening up for international travel for vaccinated travellers. Why is the UK not doing the same?” she said.

“We in the industry are not cavalier. If the data genuinely does not allow a safe re-opening, publish the data and close down international travel. Then provide tailored sector-specific support for the airline and travel industry to allow us to survive. This current flip-flopping and utter lack of transparency erodes consumer and industry confidence and cannot continue.”

Charlie Cornish, boss at Stansted owner Manchester Airports Group (MAG) claimed the government “doesn’t trust its own system” and that international travel is being “unfairly scapegoated”, with tens of thousands of jobs placed at risk.

“We’re stuck with a system that is clearly not fit for purpose and will deny people the opportunity to travel abroad safely this year,” he said. “The lack of transparency is shocking and totally unacceptable.” 

The Department for Transport said the situation in Portugal “required swift action to protect the gains made with the vaccine rollout”. Test and Trace figures show 200 arrivals from Portugal were tested between May 6 and May 19, of which three tested positive for coronavirus.