Comment: Time to respond, Mr Sunak

BTA chief executive Clive Wratten issues a call to the Chancellor:

The collapse of STA Travel, a long-established and respected travel brand, has left me feeling more nervous than ever about the future of the travel management industry.

While STA was famous for its student travel services, it also had an active and professional business travel arm that has also ceased trading.

The combined pressures of months of very low revenue and needing to deal with the unwinding of furlough provided the final mortal blows. Many Business Travel Association (BTA) members are facing similar challenges.

Suggestions that the industry will reduce by 50% ring truer than ever.

Initial fears that demand might not return until 2021 now seem outrageously optimistic. Yet the business travel sector, worth more than £230 billion a year, is worth fighting for tooth and nail.

The recent focus of the BTA’s response has been twofold. We have been arguing strongly for ways in which we can limit quarantine and, in turn, stimulate sales.

Second, we have been lobbying the government about the need to find new types of support post the cessation of furlough.

On quarantine we have been highly supportive of the need for rapid testing at airport arrivals and have argued for five-day follow-up tests which, if negative, would immediately foreshorten quarantine.

While we know that commercial testing operations could meet this policy approach and that the government is undertaking its own feasibility tests, a blow was dealt at the end of August with revisions to testing regimes across Europe.

Germany’s abandonment of testing on arrival highlights the fact that even countries successful in limiting the impact of Coronavirus will act to protect their own nationals.

Equally, Austria, an early and respected adopter of tests on arrival in Vienna, has now introduced new border restrictions to help combat increasing local numbers of Covid-19 cases.

As these dark clouds loom, there has been some brighter talk of a New York-to-London corridor.

However, here in the UK as we move into September the biggest worry we face is the cessation of furlough.

To be clear, we have welcomed the furlough support provided by the government. In an ideal world, we would love to see that extended for our industry. However, the Treasury remains adamant that there will be no extension into 2021.

But the closing of fiscal doors with no alternatives seems a dereliction of political, economic and public duty. The absence of alternatives and fresh ideas is deeply worrying.

Unfazed by the Chancellor’s silence, the BTA has drawn up fresh plans.

Our ‘Parachute Package’ proposal argues for a repayable business support scheme that would cost the taxpayer nothing in the long term.

The government would cover 60% of the salaries of remaining TMC employees in 2020, with a potential extension into 2021, and the monies would be repaid as companies return to profit.

Sadly, even though there are no other alternatives on the table, the government has yet to fully respond to our proposal. Treasury officials are silent. Policymakers do not engage, and the Chancellor seems to be sitting on his hands, keeping the door to Number 11 firmly closed.

Come on Mr Sunak – after a miserable summer for our industry, hasn’t the time come to fix a meeting to discuss our Parachute Package?

Clive Wratten is chief executive of the Business Travel Association (BTA)


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