Chris Haslam | The Times - The big travel inquest: 8 cataclysmic decisions that killed off post-pandemic travel

In 2019, the United Kingdom had the best travel industry in the world. That’s not Brexit chest-beating but fact: our tour operators, travel agents and airlines offered us more choice, greater expertise and a better understanding of sustainability than any other nation on earth. By mid-2020 travel was the worst-hit sector in the British economy, but as a national asset contributing £238bn — or 10 per cent of GDP —to the economy and employing 4.2 million workers, it was inconceivable that the government would ignore its plight.

But that’s exactly what has happened. The British government, through neglect, incompetence, ignorance and hubris, has left our travel trade to die. In May, Grant Shapps said “travel agents are a thing of the past”. It was yet another gaffe from the transport secretary, but also a statement that, through his actions, could very well come to pass.

These are the eight key government decisions that brought travel to the edge of the abyss.

1. Quarantine

On June 3 2020, Priti Patel, the home secretary, closed down both outbound and inbound travel by announcing that all arrivals from overseas — but for some essential workers — would have to undergo 14 days’ quarantine. Health experts questioned the timing, with many saying the restrictions had come too late, and Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, dissociated himself from the policy, stating that the decision over its timing was “something for politicians to make”. That timing, predictably, was a disaster; as passengers arriving at UK airports the following week described chaos, confusion and long delays, while the Border Force union admitted it wasn’t checking the quarantine forms.

2. Air bridges

Grant Shapps’s masterplan was a series of bilateral agreements that would allow so-called air bridges to connect the UK with other countries, allowing travellers to avoid UK quarantine regulations. Sadly, no one at the DfT had thought to privately assure the devolved administrations, and they weren’t happy when they found out. As the Home Office and Foreign Office distanced themselves from the debacle, air bridges were scrapped, and on July 3 Shapps announced a new concept called travel corridors, allowing quarantine-free travel to 59 countries — including Spain. This was just the first of a staggering 50 policy changes and U-turns that would destroy public confidence and send the industry into a tailspin.

3. Spain loses its air bridge

At 6pm on Saturday July 27, and just 17 days after the travel corridors were opened, Spain was dropped from the list — with just six hours’ notice. An estimated 1.5 million British tourists — including Grant Shapps — either in Spain or booked to travel there faced quarantine upon their return. The incident triggered frenzied efforts to beat the midnight deadline, tens of thousands of cancellations and a near complete loss of confidence in government advice. Adding insult to injury, the government did not warn the travel industry of the U-turn. When asked why there had been no notice given Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, said giving “vague advice” would “create more uncertainty”.

4. Testing on arrival

In mid-July 2020, John Holland-Kaye, the chief executive of Heathrow Airport, asked the government to take the lead in the development of an international standard for Covid testing at airports. In August, travel agents and the industry body Airlines UK echoed his call, while the All Party Parliamentary Group for The Future of Aviation warned that the UK risked “being left behind” by more progressive nations. Their pleas and warnings fell on deaf ears, and by October, Heathrow had conceded its title as Europe’s busiest airport to Charles de Gaulle in Paris. By August this year, it had fallen to 14th “due to especially harsh and often disproportionate travel restrictions”, according to an Airports Council International report.

5. The Global Travel Taskforce

On October 7 2020, Grant Shapps and Matt Hancock jointly announced the establishment of a Global Travel Taskforce (GTF) to look into pre-departure testing and to develop “a global framework to make travelling easier”. The taskforce was to work with various government departments, including Test and Trace and Public Health England, but initially no representatives from the travel industry were asked to join. Assurances were made that experts would be invited to join the Zoom meetings — an experience one major tour operator described as “like sitting on the children’s table at a grown-ups’ dinner party”. The GTF’s one solid proposal before its disbandment was “test to release”, allowing travellers from non-corridor destinations to skip quarantine if they bought and passed an extra test on day five.

6. Dodgy traffic lights

The government’s traffic-light system is based on an EU scheme introduced last October as a means of simplifying travel across the member states. Ours only confused matters further. Green, amber and red lists weren’t enough for the DfT and the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC). They needed the green watchlist, amber plus and the hastily abandoned amber watchlist. Each colour came with a combination of up to seven legal requirements, and none, it seemed, could be trusted. On May 7, Portugal was green-listed. On June 3, with no warning, it went amber. Once again, travellers were forced to abandon holidays to avoid quarantine; those yet to travel had plans ruined; and with their suppliers under no obligation to give money back, tour operators faced funding refunds out of their own shrinking resources.

On July 19, amber became effectively green for vaccinated travellers, meaning they could skip the mandatory ten-day isolation. Just three days prior, France alone was listed as amber plus: a classification reportedly devised by Grant Shapps that required even the vaccinated to self-isolate. The spurious justification was an increase in cases of the beta variant in Réunion, an island in the Indian Ocean 6,000 miles from Paris. Réunion, incidentally, remained on the standard amber list. Requests for an explanation of the decision-making process were ignored, and consumer confidence, lifted by the vaccine rollout and the end of UK restrictions, was punched back to the floor. Travel’s last hopes for a 2021 recovery were in tatters. “The summer is lost,” said Julia Lo Bue Said, CEO of Advantage Travel Partnership. “Any attempt to save it is over.”

7. The testing fiasco

Devised to complicate rather than facilitate travel, the UK’s travel testing policy will be remembered as one of the government’s most cynical tricks on the British public. Rather than regulating prices and quality, or allowing travellers access to underused official testing centres — thus raising revenue for the NHS — the government let the wide boys in. Anyone, it seemed, could set themselves up as an approved testing facility, often charging fees many times higher than the price displayed on the government website, and while DHSC insists that these costly tests — ranging from £50 to £399 depending on supplier — are required for the identification of new variants, research by Huw Merriman MP has revealed that only 5 per cent of test results were genomically sequenced in the first three weeks of July.

8. No tailored support

But for a brief period last summer, the travel industry has been shut down since March 2020. That’s 17 months without income and 70 weeks as hostages of a government that has repeatedly raised, then dashed hopes. Tour operators and agents had their last hopes pinned on pent-up demand for travel, but the government has killed our enthusiasm for foreign fields. Now, with furlough ending and no prospect of any upturn in business, the industry warns that insolvencies and redundancies are inevitable. Its collapse will reverberate in tourism-dependent communities worldwide and result in higher costs and much reduced choice for us all.

Tailored support for the industry — similar to that offered to zoos, hairdressers, gyms and rural bus services — could prevent this disaster, but pleas to the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, have been dismissed. Asked to sum up the feeling in the trade at the government’s betrayal of travel, Derek Moore, deputy chair of AITO, the specialist travel association, said: “The word that comes to mind is ‘anger’.”

And yet…

In spite of this: tour operators and agencies might collapse; mergers and acquisitions might change the industry; and, for a few years at least, the world may become again that big place with the hard-to-reach corners we knew in the 1980s.

Flight connectivity will shrink; in many cases, prices will rise; and, when it comes to getting the top rooms and the best deals, we may find that, like Heathrow, we’ve slipped down the desirability charts.

But the British travel industry is driven as much by passion as by expertise, and such passion is difficult to crush. So while there may be tough times and less choice for a short while, you can rest assured that whether you want to ride horses over the Himalayas; bicycles through the Basque country or an inflatable banana off Punta Cana, there’ll always be a British specialist who can not only plan your trip, but provide too the protection and the peace of mind you’ll never get when trying to book it by yourself.

The Times has contacted the Department for Transport for a response.

Source: Chris Haslam - The Times