Portugal was the only major holiday location in Europe where Brits could visit without quarantining on return after international travel re-opened on May 17. But this afternoon the country was downgraded to the amber list in a devastating blow for the travel industry.
Planes have largely been grounded since January when the UK entered a third national lockdown.
Tourism firms had been hoping today would see more countries given the go-ahead for travel, but instead, the list was cut.
Announcing the decision this evening Mr Shapps said: “It’s actually a difficult decision to make, but in the end we’ve seen two things which have caused concern.
“One is the positivity rate has nearly doubled, since the last review, in Portugal.
“The other is that there’s this sort of Nepal mutation of the Indian variant which has been detected and we just don’t know the potential for that to be a vaccine defeating variant and simply don’t want to take the risk as we come up to June 21 and the review of the fourth stage of the unlock.”
The decision was made as part of the Government’s first review of travel restrictions.
Ministers have pledged to assess the state of coronavirus globally every three weeks to determine if more countries can be added to the green list or if areas designated safe to travel need to be downgraded to the dreaded amber and red lists.
Officials say Public Health England is looking into the new mutation of the Indian variant to better understand how it impacts the Covid vaccines currently being rolled out across the UK.
However, the World Health Organisation said this morning it was not aware of any such mutation from Nepal.
In a social media post, it said: “WHO is not aware of any new variant of SARS-CoV-2 being detected in Nepal.
“The three confirmed variants in circulation are: Alpha (B.1.1.7), Delta (B.1.617.2) and Kappa (B.1.617.1). The predominant variant currently in circulation in Nepal is Delta (B.1.617.2).”
Airlines were informed of the decision to move Portugal onto the amber list earlier today at a briefing from the Department for Transport.
EasyJet said the decision made “no sense” and described it as a “huge blow”.
In a statement, it added: “This decision essentially cuts the UK off from the rest of the world.”
Data provided by Cirium showed that Ryanair and easyJet had been scheduled to operate over 500 flights from the UK to Portugal in June. The airlines had all added flights to the country last month as Brits hoping to catch the a holiday abroad rushed to book trips away.
The amber list designation comes into force from 4am on Tuesday morning, giving those in Portugal five days to return and avoid the need to isolate.
After then, anyone returning from the country will now be required to quarantine at home for up to 10 days upon arrival in the UK.
At the same time, seven countries – Afghanistan, Bahrain, Costa Rica, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Trinidad & Tobago– have been added to the red list.
Those returning to Britain from those counties must pay over £1,000 to isolate for 10 days in a specialised quarantine hotel.
Defending the decision, UK Health Security Agency chief executive Dr Jenny Harries said it was important precautions were taken to combat the rising number of coronavirus cases in Britain.
She said: “Increases in case rates in the UK serve as a reminder that this pandemic is not over yet and we need to take a cautious approach.
“Everyone should observe the travel guidance, continue to follow hands, face, space and fresh air, and have both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine when offered.
“Testing will help to break chains of transmission and allow us to see which variants are circulating so make sure you get tested when you return to the UK in line with the guidance.”