The UK government must recognise travel has been among the hardest-hit industries by the Covid-19 crisis and provide special support to ensure it survives, say agency bosses.

Gary Lewis, chief executive of consortium The Travel Network Group, said the sector was already reeling from the impact of the global lockdown and that the latest restrictions imposed on travel to Spain – the UK’s biggest holiday destination – meant the government now had to step in and assist.

Speaking on a Travel Weekly webcast, he said: “The impact on our members is enormous. They do not earn income until people depart on holiday. The momentum build-up for 2021 is hugely important for bookings. The majority of our members are very robust. They’re expecting a very poor 2020, we’ve seen that; but also very poor bookings in 2020 for next year and they desperately need 2021 to get away and happen. So this really does challenge the government and our industry.

“The government has done some really good things, like the furlough scheme and the loans [to address] the economic impact. But we need to know what’s next. We’ve now seen our biggest destination hit by this quarantine decision. So now is the time the government has to recognise our industry is different to the UK economy.”

Lewis added: “We were the first into this crisis and we will be the last out. We need to be able to be recognised as a different industry, that needs different support.”

He accepted decisions had to be made that prioritised public health, but urged the government to recognise the impact these have on an industry which is already really suffering.

“If they’ve got the data that they believe that’s keeping the citizens in this country safe, then fine. We haven’t seen the data and if we did, we may very well make the same decision,” Lewis said. “But for goodness sake, recognise the difference and the impact upon our industry; recognise that we are the only industry to not just go through the crisis and see our revenue stop, but also give all our profits that we have made over the last 12 months back to be able to refund consumers. That’s the difference.”

Lewis said travel should be treated differently than other industries, with extra support in the form of grants and access to cash to see businesses through to 2021.

Warning of the potential impact of the crisis on the industry if there was no tailored support, he said: “Be under no illusions, as impactful as quarantine is today, if 2021 doesn’t happen the whole of the UK [travel] industry disappears.”

Dorking Travel owner Alistair McLean has meanwhile sent a letter to the prime minister pointing out how he believes the latest restrictions on travel to Spain will devastate the UK travel industry.

“I hope government equally understands how this will affect the industry. Already cancellations for other destinations have been received and consumers that were about to book a last-minute holiday are now no longer booking because of the uncertainty of whether the holiday will take place,” McLean wrote.

And he called for Westminster to step in and assist.

“Just as the government has identified the restaurant businesses needs help and have introduced the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, it is now time to help the travel industry with specific assistance.”

McLean asked the government to extend the furlough scheme for travel businesses until at least February 2021, underwrite all consumer cancellations due to government advice preventing travel so agents can keep their commission on the sale and tour operators and airlines keep revenue earned.

He also called on Boris Johnson’s government to provide non-refundable grants to businesses in all sectors of the travel industry, and extend the business rates holiday for high street travel agents until positive cash flow resumes.

Speaking on the webcast, Paul Charles, chief executive of The PC Agency and co-ordinator of the Quash Quarantine campaign, added: “Never mind an airbridge. It’s an economic bridge that companies need right now in this sector.

“The travel sector is not one you can simply switch on and switch off overnight, as you can with some parts of hospitality, beauty salons, hairdressers, etc, where there is an immediate demand to go. Travel is something which takes a long time to get going again.

“So the government will have to step in and somehow help this sector. I think Rishi Sunak is aware of that; Alok Sharma certainly is. And there’s an awareness among many Conservative MPs behind the scenes.”

Charles said he felt there would be some additional support for the travel sector but that it could “take some time”.

“There’s a gap between the fear that consumers have now of government quarantine measures affecting the rest of the summer, and the time when the government can issue the next autumn statement or do something overtly to help the sector, when of course it will then face the risk of other sectors shouting, ‘we need help, too – our hands are up.’

“And that’s what the government’s worried about; they can’t help everybody.”