Taking bookings for imminent departures is “not commercially wise” a leading travel lawyer has warned after the Foreign Office (FCO) updated its travel advice at the weekend to advise against all but essential travel worldwide for an indefinite period.
Speaking during Etoa’s Covid-19: UK Response webinar on Monday (6 April), Neil Baylis, Mishcon de Reya partner and head of travel, said he had heard of airlines taking bookings for flights as early as May, which he said could put them in a difficult position if it quickly becomes clear there was never any realistic prospect of customers and clients being able to travel owing to the coronavirus pandemic – and would likely just create more bad PR.
Baylis said while it was up to individual businesses to decide whether it was the right thing to do, taking bookings for May was clearly “high risk”. “There’s no legal obligation not to do it, but it’s not commercially wise at the moment,” he said.
Kurt Janson, director of the Tourism Alliance, told the webinar the updated guidance from the FCO – issued late on Saturday night (4 April) – clearly put travel businesses in a difficult position. “No one knows where they stand,” said Janson. “What does it mean for forward bookings and people trying to get bookings for next year?”
Janson said it was one of the issues the alliance would take up with Tourism Industry Emergency Response (Tier) group as a matter of urgency following a flurry of queries since the weekend.
Tier is a coalition of around 25 trade associations and businesses that inform and lobby the Tourism Industry Council, a collaboration between government and the tourism sector, on behalf of travel, feeding back concerns about any gaps in official government guidance.
On the government’s support measures for businesses in the retail, hospitality and leisure sector, which have been given a year’s relief from business rates, Jonathan Wall, co-founder and managing director of travel accountancy firm Elman Wall, said HMRC was currently working on a new portal to manage claims.
However, he said he would be “amazed” if it was up and running in time to start paying out in April, which the government’s current ambition.
He said the system was not like an ATM where you put your details in “and expect money to some straight out”, adding it was important to remember tens of thousands of businesses across the country were currently supplying information to make claims for the various financial support measures announced by government in recent weeks.
Wall added the travel industry was in a particularly difficult position with it being required by statute to address and provide, where clients are unwilling to accept a short-term credit note, refunds or other reparations under the Package Travel Regulations (PTRs) – which requires them to staff their business to handle these matters rather than furlough employees under the government’s job retention scheme at a time of zero revenue.
Janson added the Tourism Alliance was investigating whether processing payments and completing other non-profit generating administrative functions, as required by the PTRs, would constitute “statutory work” under the terms of the government’s furlough scheme. “It is certainly something we will be taking up with government,” he said.