"You know what travel needs? Another taskforce. Yes, that’ll do it." Said no one. Ever. Least of all anyone actually employed in travel.
But here we are, seven months into the pandemic, we have the Global Travel Taskforce.
I say this with the utmost sincerity: I really do hope it is the turning point we’ve all been waiting for, one that gets quarantine and testing sorted and signals the government is ready and willing to engage with the travel sector.
Alternatively, maybe someone in government mentioned it in passing during a roundtable, or a think tank, or a thoughtgasm, or any of those other equally vague vessels used to disguise blue sky thinking for what it really is – cheap talk.
Remember the Jet Zero Council? Hastily announced by transport secretary Grant Shapps in June to distract from all the grumbling about quarantine; it met once, a month later in July, and – so far as we can tell – was promptly shelved.
Then there was culture secretary Oliver Dowden’s Cultural Renewal Taskforce, announced during an otherwise wholly unspectacular mid-week government Covid press briefing in May – one of many the country largely ignored as they dealt with more pressing matters like worrying about their jobs, those of their colleagues and/or employees, or perhaps planning their summer holiday (and even then, nearly every destination has since been removed from the UK’s travel corridor list!).
Dowden said the taskforce would bring together experts, including figures from the tourism sector, to advise on restarting Britain’s recreation and leisure sector.
A quick Google search suggests any of the taskforce’s subsequent activities failed to warrant any updates from the government itself (a search of gov.uk returns five results, two relating to the taskforce’s announcement and another to an update of Dowden’s ministerial portfolio to acknowledge the taskforce’s very existence), or "wow" the media sufficiently for it to take an interest.
Perhaps I’m being harsh; the Cultural Renewal Taskforce apparently meets weekly, and is supported by eight sector-specific working groups (according to a parliamentary question dating back to 1 June that was answered on 4 June).
Perhaps it’s quietly done a lot of great work, and perhaps we should be celebrating its achievements – and maybe we would, if only we knew what they were.
Heck, Dowden even managed to swing by Butlin’s (three months after announcing the taskforce) for a quick snoop around, and to plug chancellor Rishi Sunak’s East Out to Help Out scheme – what travel would give for a similar incentive...
But forgive me for this most abstract of thoughts, but it’s just that it was my belief taskforces were something set up at the point at which a problem is identified.
Seven months ago, it was evident Covid was going to be a pretty damn big problem for travel – so why no Global Travel Taskforce until now?
It’s early October – if the ship hasn’t yet sailed or the aircraft taken off, we’re certainly mustering or going through the in-flight safety video when it comes to travel’s very survival.
Taskforces are the preserve of those who are too stressed, over-worked and time-poor to solve a problem, and I sympathise with everyone within government who appreciates travel’s plight but simply does not have the time or resource to address it.
Ministers though, nay, secretaries of state like Grant Shapps and Matt Hancock, should know better than to make big promises while delivering little.
Taskforces give a veneer of action, of hope, of progress. But what travel desperately needs is urgent, sector-specific support – on jobs, on refunds, on finances, on testing, on quarantine.
No one in government listened to the sector’s call for tailored furlough to allow those carrying out non-profit generating roles – like processing cancellations, rebooks and refunds – to be able to work while being furloughed.
No one in government listened to the sector’s calls for an alternative to quarantine, such as an effective airport testing regime, or at least a regional quarantine system – Germany’s government managed both, has a quarter of the Covid deaths the UK and recorded, and continues to maintain a much lower rate of Covid infection.
So will this new travel taskforce listen? Will it engage with the sector’s concerns? Will it court the views of those at the coalface? Will it dig a little deeper into travel’s problems beyond those of aviation, with which it seems to have become synonymous.
Please, Mr Shapps and Mr Hancock, don’t let this be another effort to paper over the cracks created by your failure to listen and engage earlier.
Everyone in travel is ready to work with you to secure a better outcome – for workers, consumers, the economy and the country.