UK’s biggest tour operators expect ‘watered down’ traffic light changes

The bosses of the UK’s biggest tour operators expect the changes to the traffic light system they have asked for are likely to be “watered down”.

The UK boss of Tui and chief executives of Jet2holidays and easyJet holidays spoke at Travel Weekly’s Future of Travel conference today, the first time the three have appeared on the same panel.

They were speaking a day after health secretary Sajid Javid and prime minister Boris Johnson both said transport secretary Grant Shapps is due to make an announcement on the system “shortly”.

Jet2holidays chief executive Steve Heapy said he had two main asks: a “simplification of the traffic light system” and “PCR tests to be scrapped”.

He said pointed out how the UK has dozens of countries on its red list compared to France, Spain and Germany having far fewer.

“We are massively more pessimistic than other countries,” he said. “And it needs reforming.”

Heapy added: “There should be no tests for double-vaccinated people. The vaccine either works or it doesn’t.”

He suggested those who are not vaccinated for medical reasons should be supported with tests paid for them, but that those who choose not to be vaccinated should still have to pay for tests in order to travel.

Heapy called for the removal of tests in resort, which he said was the main reason “stopping people from booking a holiday”.

He also criticised the lack of genome sequencing of PCR tests – which the government had insisted was the main reason for insisting on their use, as a means to identify variants of concern. Heapy said “no variants have been confirmed as a result of genomic sequencing” and pointed out the cost of tests taken since the implementation of the traffic light system is estimated at more than £1 billion.

Heapy said he expects a “compromise” from government, and said ministers are “split in two” on the issue.

“One group wants to get things moving, others – including the health secretary – are more cautious.”

He believes Sage – the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies – has “too much influence in government” and said for that reason it “looks like whatever we were expecting will be watered down”.

Tui’s managing director for the UK and northern Europe, Andrew Flintham, agreed that the changes asked for by the industry are likely to be watered down.

“It’s been 18 months of disappointment,” he said when addressing government restrictions on travel. “We all hope and expect that the data and the science would suggest is quite practical.”

Tui, Europe’s largest travel company, has seen its German market return to 60% capacity, said Flintham who said Belgian and Dutch business was at “the same” level.

“Only the Nordics and the UK are an absolute basket case in terms of operations,” he said.

“I hope we will get something that’s a redefinition of that [traffic light] system.”

Flintham agreed with Heapy that the government is likely to “pass [the decision] on to a scientific panel.”

“I agree that there will be some watering down at the eleventh hour,” said Flintham. “But I am positive that they are going to make some changes.”

He said the industry “has to avoid” the “rollercoaster” of traffic light updates every three weeks with only days to implement the changes and said travel companies should be given 10 days to two weeks between changes being announced and coming into force.

Flintham said that would be “proportionate” and “manageable”, adding: “People would be going away knowing they don’t have to scramble back.” He also called for the Department for Transport system to align with Foreign Office (FCDO) travel advice.

Garry Wilson, chief executive of easyJet holidays, noted how the three companies “feed into the Global Travel Taskforce”, adding: “Companies of the scale of ours do have discussions with government regularly. But how much of that lands in a way that’s palatable is questionable.”

He said the industry could “deal with” a “handful” of countries being on a red list, but said it “can’t deal with huge swathes”.

Wilson suggested there was “no point” looking at the data the government has said it uses to decide which countries are on the red list, because “the advice doesn’t align with data”.

And Wilson insisted PCR tests should not be replaced by antigen tests, referencing the health secretary’s hint of such a move in the House of Commons yesterday.

He said: “We won’t be pleased if you replace a £60 PCR test with a £30 antigen. There’s no scientific reason for it. We need to call, as a industry, for a level playing field.”

Wilson suggested “free tests should be applied to travel” in a similar wat to how they are with nightclubs and major events.

“We will be expected to be grateful [for a switch from PCR to antigen tests] and for the small uptick in summer travel, but we will still be in the duldrums.”

And Wilson said “there has to be specific [financial] support” for the travel industry and aviation, despite the chancellor having said it will be “challenging” to offer tailored support to any individual sector.

He said: “We need to shout consistently and loudly, with one voice, and say this is not good enough.”


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