It wasn’t the foreboding, the portentous headlines or the challenges he knew were to follow that caused Shai Weiss to cut short a pre-Covid trip to the US – it was the moment he was told some of his Virgin Atlantic crew were nervous about flying to China.
"That grabbed my attention," Weiss admits. It’s now late-March 2021, shortly before the government’s Global Travel Taskforce is due to report the findings of its review of how international travel can be restarted safely. I ask Weiss to recall the onset of Covid; his account is understandably vivid. "People like dates," he says. "So I’m going back 419 days to 1 February 2020 when we first suspended flights to Shanghai.
"Most of the dates that followed came at an unbelievable price; they’re well known to me now, and I’ll never forget them. We’ve lost around 4,500 jobs, 45% of the company. We understood saving Virgin Atlantic, and as many jobs as we could, was the only thing that mattered. We’ve obsessed over that for the past 419 days."
Controversially, at least at the time, says Weiss, Virgin asked staff to take four weeks’ unpaid leave. "It was a bit like an election," he muses. "There I was telling people the world was about to become very difficult, and that I needed their support; 99% of our people volunteered. If there’s one thing that will be with me for ever, it was that feeling of being humbled by the team."
He remembers in late-March reading "from start to finish" the paper by epidemiologist and former government advisor Neil Ferguson, which forecast 250,000 UK Covid deaths if the government didn’t lockdown immediately. "I didn’t understand all the ins and outs of the science, but I understood the devastating impact he expected," Weiss recalls.