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Comment: The rug has been pulled from under us

Government pulling up the drawbridge without support for sector will risk thousands of jobs, says Miles Morgan

We all know how tough the past 10 months have been. We all couldn’t wait to see the back of 2020 and looked forward to a fresh start. But sadly the rollercoaster ride of 2020 appears to have continued into 2021.

The rug has been pulled from under us in terms of new sales, with the arrival of the new Covid variant causing a scary and sobering number of infections and deaths. It’s hardly surprising public confidence has been knocked, immediately affecting appetite for holiday booking.

On the positive side, by mid-February a large percentage of the people most likely to be hospitalised by the virus should be vaccinated, which is brilliant news. But what does this mean for the prospect of holidays this year?

With my glass half-full hat on, I think the NHS should be able to cope with anything the virus throws at it and the country will slowly reopen. Travel should recommence soon after Easter, albeit with some changes.

Will it be corridors and Thursday night ‘holiday roulette’, or will it be more simple, with a level of testing to both go and return from your holiday? PCR testing, which requires lab analysis and can take 48 hours to provide results, could be a challenge in some destinations. But simpler lateral flow tests would be a small price to pay for things returning to the new normal.

There is also the quarantine option which, unless hotels are brought in, is hard to police, and without that seems pointless.

Worst-case scenario

There is also a glass half-empty view. Even with the vaccination programme fully rolled out, the government fears another new variant that neutralises the vaccine and sends the UK back to square one. That is something no one wants.

To avoid this, the government may pull up the drawbridge and halt international travel completely. Sadly, after 10 months and three lockdowns, I fear ministers will take this option to avoid the banana skin of a successful vaccination rollout being ruined.

In this scenario, the questions are ‘for how long?’ and ‘will there be sector support?’

Support measures

The initial period could be to May, but I’d expect they may extend it for the summer, which would be a disaster for the industry. My hope is that, with this being a formal shutdown rather than the on-off of last year, they will support us through. An extension of furlough, and support for self-employed homeworkers, would be required along with grants. Maybe a temporary change to package travel regulations could allow every holiday to be automatically rolled forward 12 months, thereby avoiding a huge bleed on airline and holiday company cash and the need to manually administer every change.

Without support for the summer, this government decision would decimate an industry that has suffered so much financially and worked so hard to find a route through.

Where is the Global Travel Taskforce? It was set up to give the blueprint to start travel again but has issued just one report, in late November. We need regular updates.

The risk of a new variant will always exist. At some point we’ll need to reopen and enter a new world. We cannot live in fear for ever. We must accept the virus will live alongside us, like flu, for years to come.

Pulling up the drawbridge would risk thousands of jobs, strain the mental health of many and ultimately not solve the problem. It is a delay tactic that would, at some point, need addressing.

We must hope variants of the virus are not as dangerous as first thought, but buckle up for another white-knuckle ride in 2021.

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