The Foreign Office (FCO) has to better communicate its sudden decisions to change travel advice during the pandemic if it is to restore its reputation within the travel industry.
That was the consensus of a panel at a recent TTG Debate, which explored whether the FCO had lost the trust of the sector.
FCO advisories have been used for decades by the package travel industry to determine if trips should go ahead – with FCO advice against all non-essential travel triggering holiday cancellations and full refunds for customers.
But the pandemic has put the FCO under unprecedented scrutiny; sudden changes in advice to key destinations have caused huge problems for agents and operators, with clients already in resort or due to travel. Changes in FCO advice can also invalidate insurance policies.
An online poll, conducted during the TTG Debate on “Can we still trust the FCO on travel advice?”, found the majority of the 200 delegates (71%) no longer trusted it, as the “haphazard advice isn’t currently fit for purpose and doesn’t always match up with the DfT (Department for Transport)”.
Panellists during the debate, chaired by TTG editor Sophie Griffiths, agreed the FCO – and the government more widely – needs to improve communication to win back trust.
The FCO was invited to take part in the debate but was unable to put forward a panellist.
HAVOC IN THE INDUSTRY
Susan Deer, Abta’s director of industry relations, insisted the industry could still trust FCO advice and Abta was acting as a “critical friend” in regular discussions with the FCO.
However, she added: “Communication coming out from government has not been as clear as it could be. Making it clear why the decisions are being made would be much more helpful for businesses.”
Deer stressed she believed the FCO was “listening” to industry’s concerns and there was a desire within the department to move back towards offering country-specific and regionalised advice rather than “blanket” advisories.
Guy Anker, deputy editor of consumer finance site Moneysavingexpert.com, said: “The very short notice people are getting is creating havoc. If we knew a bit more about why countries are on the list, [then] that would be more helpful.”
Industry lawyer Joanna Kolatsis, director of Themis Advisory, warned that moving away from using FCO advice could be a “dangerous path to walk”.
“We have to be very careful about taking that objective view away and starting to assess those risks in our own right,” she argued.
“A lot of the time the travel industry just does not have the local information or intelligence to make those decisions.
“FCO advice has been tried and tested guidance for the past 30 to 40 years. We have to be careful about throwing the baby out with the bathwater, just for Covid.”
DEVIL’S IN THE DETAIL
The trade was also urged to “check the smallprint” of new insurance policies claiming to offer Covid-19 cover to countries the FCO advises against travel to.
“There’s a lot of publicity about Covid cover,” said Abta’s Deer. “But what are they covering? The devil’s in the detail.”
Moneysavingexpert.com’s Anker added some Covid-headlined insurance policies only offered “elements of Covid cover”.
Kolatsis said the longer the pandemic went on, the more the industry would have to be “creative and innovative” in finding ways to allow clients to continue travelling. “The industry has to find a way to get through this; it has no choice,” she added. “The more clarity we have, the better.”
As for the longer-term credibility of FCO advice, Abta’s Deer said it was “too early” to make a judgement. “There are so many moving parts [of this crisis]. FCO advice is just one part, along with quarantine and testing,” she added.