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Comment: Ministers should be clear and careful with their words

Travel Counsellor Andy La Gette writes open letter to ‘irresponsible’ transport secretary Grant Shapps

Dear Mr Shapps

How I wish you had spoken differently this week – and recognised the power of statements made by people in your position.

In my humble opinion, you missed a huge opportunity to deliver a clear and valuable lesson to the nation, which would have required no more than a subtle adjustment of your statements.

Your first comments were: “[Anybody] thinking of booking a holiday under the current circumstances … please don’t go ahead and book holidays for something which, at this stage, is illegal to actually go and do, whether it’s here or abroad.”

In one 10-second soundbite, you have delivered a hammer-blow to the complex and fragile rebuilding of the UK travel industry.

Regardless of whether or not you keep abreast of the herculean efforts of UK travel agents, hoteliers and airlines to simply survive this pandemic, your words – when magnified through the press as they have been this week – fall on nervous ears.

From your position, your words threaten to undo much of the work we have done in slowly and carefully trying to rebuild consumer confidence.

Frankly, it is devastating, and entirely unnecessary.

Well-informed choices

What you have failed to recognise is the exceptional resilience and adaptability of the UK travel sector to the ongoing commercial horrors of Covid, and the fact that creative solutions are now in place, enabling customers to plan ahead and book with Covid-proof financial security.

Low deposits, no deposits and even refundable or transferable deposits are some of the many dynamic workarounds being used to enable people to plan with caution for the medium-term future – a time that is shrouded in uncertainty, but which may work out alright if everything falls into place.

In addition to this, we are finding that, faced with the prospect of another year imprisoned in their own homes, many customers are actually in a position and of a mindset to roll the dice and take their chances with putting down deposits which they accept they might lose if their dream getaway dissolves.

As long as they are well-informed, let them decide what risks they are prepared to take.

The people you addressed on air are free-thinking adults. Let them choose which dreams and hopes are going to get them through these tough months ahead. What is wrong with people hoping for the best instead of assuming the worst is going to persist? Mental health and mindset are crucial to us all now. We know that travel is currently (with a few exceptions) “illegal”, but I felt mentioning this in the context of your statement implied that it will be for a prolonged period of time, which was irresponsible.

Booking a flight to go on holiday to Portugal next week is against the rules. However, we are collectively and gradually breathing oxygen onto the embers, seeking to stoke the flames of hope that maybe a dream trip to Barbados or perhaps the Maldives in November might be viable.

Why shouldn’t a customer have a full risk-analysis discussion before paying a flexible deposit on a trip and get that dream on their calendar to see them through the year? Full payment won’t be due until maybe the autumn, by which time the world will look a very different place.

Equally, what risk for a family group desperate to see one another again putting down a £50 deposit on a farmhouse rental for August? If they are prepared to accept that this deposit may be non-refundable, or may convert to a future credit note, who are you or I to say they cannot make that decision?

If you are asked to clarify what you meant this week, I think I speak for many in the industry when I beg you to consider the following clarification: “What I meant was…(anybody) thinking of booking a holiday under the current circumstances … please be careful. Make sure you understand the conditions that your agent is offering you. Discuss the likely viability of your trip in terms of destination and dates of travel, and where possible, see if they will offer you deposit flexibility so that if things don’t improve, and your trip is not viable, you can pull out with little or no loss, or maybe retain a credit note that you are happy to put towards a 2022 trip”.

Clear, workable solutions

We are all trying our best. I dare say you and your colleagues are too. We are so careful in every conversation we have with our valued customers. Retaining their good faith and confidence is vital for our very survival. I hope you now appreciate how damaging it is for us when our efforts are undermined by a clumsy statement from a government minister that pours water on our embers of hope.

Within the complex travel sector, many have felt overlooked by the Treasury support packages, and efforts have ramped-up to find our own way through the financial devastation. It was disappointing then to learn that the government hasn’t forgotten us, not with words of support or comfort, but negativity and scaremongering.

If it can be assumed that the chancellor is not in a position to support the UK travel industry by funding us to our 2019 levels while we endure the continued blanket travel bans, then we need your help.

What we surely deserve in the coming weeks and months are clear, workable solutions to help ease our industry off life support, and back on the long road to recovery. We are not afraid of hard work, and we can be patient, but we urgently need this structured support now.

We need decisions on vaccine passports. We need clarity on red-list countries and quarantines. We need credible and policeable rules that people believe in and trust. We need constant and ongoing work to reopen corridors and, most of all, we need to ensure we don’t repeat the terrible policies of 2020 with the shutters dropping on returning travellers at 24 hours’ notice.

You’ve delivered another hugely impactful statement on BBC Breakfast on Wednesday morning: “No foreign holidays until everyone is vaccinated at home and abroad” and “other countries need to catch up with their vaccination programme”.

These broad-brush comments continue to erode consumer confidence and they are too heavy-handed.

Safe and responsible emergence

We have been reassured endlessly that every adult in this country will have been offered the vaccine by the summer. We have no control over how other nations vaccinate their populations, but it is entirely plausible that for example the Greek and Spanish islands could achieve full coverage before we do. So too could smaller island nations, as has been the published ambition of the Seychelles.

Larger countries may catch us up by learning from our own experiences. We cannot write this year off at this stage – we simply do not yet know what things will look like in a few weeks or months from now. It is therefore far too soon to be stamping out travel dreams and ambitions for the latter half of 2021.

I know the challenges are huge… and the “grand opening” has to be incremental and meticulously planned. However, I feel that cautious optimism should be the backdrop now. Let’s reassure our people that with responsible cooperation, we can find our way back to the place we were before. It may take time, but along the way UK breaks, European trips and eventually long-haul travel can and will return.

As the secretary of state for transport, I feel like you are our industry’s MP. Those who work in the UK travel industry are your constituents, and we need you in our corner.

I/we hope that Mr Johnson’s roadmap on February 22 will start to lay some more foundations to recovery across the board… including travel.

We’ve been tested like never before by Covid-19, but we are not broken. As we emerge from the snows of winter, so too should we emerge from the pandemic and once more travel the world – safely and responsibly.

Yours faithfully

Andy La Gette

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