Shortly before the sad news of the Duke of Edinburgh’s passing broke on Friday (9 April), we had the publication of the Global Travel Taskforce report.
Naturally, national media scrutiny of the report was overtaken by that event, but for many within the industry, the overriding sentiments expressed in the reactions before that announcement were grimly familiar – frustration and disappointment. Let’s start with the positives. The industry requested a framework based on tiers, which delivers a more stable and robust outcome than last summer. The government’s traffic-light system should go some way to ensuring this is delivered.
The government has also reiterated its intention to enable international travel to resume this summer, hopefully from 17 May, and the cruise industry will be part of the resumption alongside other modes of travel. Crucially, ministers have also stopped advising people not to plan and book their summer trips – indeed, the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, was adopting a positive tone towards booking future travel during his interviews on Friday morning.
These are the building blocks upon which, alongside the reopening of travel agencies across the country this week, we can begin the long road to the recovery of the UK’s travel industry. However, while the framework is step forward, the lack of detail within the Global Travel Taskforce report – especially around the criteria that will be used to make country assessments – is extremely frustrating.
Businesses need this detail to be able to plan effectively, and consumers want certainty and a steer about which destinations they can visit this summer. The failure to publish the full list of countries, more than a month out from the intended restart date, is perhaps understandable – but an open and transparent approach around the considerations that will be in play, including some detail on criteria that will be used, is something the industry had reasonably expected in the report. The fact this will not be forthcoming until early May will set back the recovery timeline for the sector.
Another matter that requires urgent attention from ministers is the proposed approach to testing, especially for those returning from lower-risk areas. The report recognises testing costs are a serious barrier and says ministers and officials will engage with the industry and testing providers. It is difficult to understand why those arriving from so-called "green countries", which have been identified not to have significant prevalence of the disease and not to have variants of concern in widespread circulation, should have to take the more expensive PCR tests by default on their return to the UK.
Abta believes a more sensible approach, for green countries, would be a protocol using lateral flow tests, with PCR tests mandated if the second of the tests required once the person is back in the UK presents a positive result. Of course, there is an incentive for the individual to seek that test too as a negative result from the more sensitive PCR test would enable an end to self-isolation.
A further priority for the government’s attention must be to make clear how Foreign Office travel advice will sit alongside the traffic light system. It is the advice against all but essential travel which affected so many holiday plans last year and triggered an unprecedented number of refunds and postponements. We need to understand how this will be managed going forward. Abta has made clear it is our view travel advice must only be applied in relation to Covid-19 where the associated risk to travellers in destination is unacceptably high.
Finally, but by no means least, we also urgently need the chancellor to present a plan of tailored financial support for the travel industry. It is clear the recovery trajectory for international travel is slower than it will be for other areas of the economy, with some destinations unlikely to return this year. Yet, the government’s current roadmap sets out how existing support will be peeled back as domestic restrictions are removed.
A tailored approach will be required to support our businesses and employees through the crisis. That must include the extension of furlough arrangements, full business rates relief, and sector-specific grants support. Abta has already submitted a detailed written response to the taskforce response. We will be lobbying hard on the above matters, alongside other priorities, in the days and weeks ahead. This includes our chief executive, Mark Tanzer, appearing in front of the government’s transport committee on Wednesday morning (14 April).
Abta will also be working closely with others across the wider industry, including our Save Future Travel coalition partners, and the Future of Aviation group of parliamentarians, to ensure the government is fully aware of the importance of getting people traveling again this summer.
Our underlying message is clear – recovery of international travel is vital for the prospects of the entire UK economy. Our industry underpins the international trading links and connectivity that the UK’s future trading success relies upon. A prolonged crisis for international travel will thwart any ambitions the government has for delivering global Britain.
Luke Petherbridge is Abta’s director of public affairs.