Irene Hays has described the UK as "an island nation of explorers" who are "absolutely desperate to travel" after more than a year spent for the large part under Covid lockdown.
Appearing on the BBC’s Lockdown Live special on Tuesday (23 March) marking a year since prime minister Boris Johnson told the country for the first time to "stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives", Hays discussed vaccine certification, her excitement for a summer of UK "seacations", and the nation’s growing wanderlust.
Asked by presenter Nick Robinson if people should get used to the idea of potentially going another summer without an overseas holiday, Hays said while Europe may be off limits during the early part of the summer, there would be no shortage of opportunities for other holidays.
"There are still lots of places in the world that will be open," said Hays, appearing straight after a slot with Andrew Lloyd-Webber discussing the potential for a return to theatres.
"In fact, there is perhaps an opportunity to see live musicals because the great news this week is seacations," said Hays. "Cruise ships from the top 12 cruise companies in the world are coming to the UK and cruising round the British Isles and you’d be able to see musicals and cabaret [onboard]."
Robinson asked Hays whether she would like to see vaccine certificates "converted into some kind of passport" that would allow people to travel. "I think that would be helpful," she said.
"They’ve always been there [vaccine certificates]. I remember trying to go to Africa 40 years ago and I needed a yellow fever certificate. So certificates for vaccinations have been around for a very very long time, and I think that is one route to enabling people to be able to travel again."
Asked by Robinson if the UK should follow the example set by Australia and New Zealand and commit to travelling and partying at home and "forgetting foreign travel for another year", Hays said she felt, in the mind of the British public, Robinson would be in a minority.
"As soon as people are able to do so [travel], we know that they are absolutely desperate to travel – and travel they will," said Hays. "We are an island nation of explorers. People want to get across and see some sunshine, they want to explore, they want to see new things and try new food.
"We know travel is in the top three desirable purchases when we bounce back. I am convinced that people will travel in the future."
Hays added the travel sector was mindful of the effect summer holidays had on incidence of Covid infection. "Clearly, we need to be very careful, and we need to listen to the advice from the scientists," said Hays.
"But if you go to a reputable travel agent, and there are lots of them across the UK, they will look after the two things that are most important – the first one is health and safety, and the second is financial security. And they’ll do that for you."
Health secretary Matt Hancock also appeared on the show, and was asked about the prospect of overseas summer holidays. "It’s too early to know," he said.
"We’re going to set out what we do know, and what we think is wise next month. We’re not going to have international travel before 17 May as it’s part of the so-called step three [of the government’s Covid roadmap].
"But we just don’t know yet whether it is going to be safe yet to have large-scale international travel this summer. You gave the example of what happened in Greece last summer. That was a problem. You’re right to frame this as things going well here, thankfully. We’re on track on that roadmap, but we’ve also got to make sure we protect the country in case things go wrong elsewhere where it’s outside of our control."
Robinson pressed Hancock on why the government just didn’t rule out foreign holidays right now and take the Australian approach, to which Hancock said it was too early to make a decision like that as well.
"We’ve got the vaccine, that is our big, big defence that we haven’t had at any point until now," said Hancock. "It’s clearly working, it’s working domestically. If we see evidence it is working against all the known new variants [of Covid-19] from abroad as well, then that makes it much easier.
"Of course I know people want foreign holidays, and we want to get out of these kind of restrictions. The collective spirit the public has shown over the last year has been nothing short of remarkable. We’ve just got a bit longer to go."