Trade calls for government support as travel curbs return

Travel agents, operators, airlines and travel industry bodies reacted with dismay and anger at the announcement on Saturday afternoon about the return of pre-departure tests and the addition of Nigeria to the red list.

Nigeria will be on the red list from 4am Monday and the need for a negative Covid-19 test result will come into force at 4am on Tuesday, amid concerns about the Omicron variant of Covid-19.

It meant many in the travel trade had to scramble into action on Saturday evening to contact customers due to arrive back home from Tuesday morning onwards, and deal with cancellations, queries and falling consumer confidence.

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An Abta spokesperson said: “The re-introduction of pre-departure tests will be a huge blow to travellers and an already devastated travel industry, which has been the hardest hit sector throughout the crisis and which is now fast approaching the key booking season for next summer.

“While we have always been clear that public health must be the priority at this time, the government must now step up to save jobs and businesses.

“The industry needs financial support, which recognises these measures will significantly weaken demand and the Chancellor must now consider the reintroduction of furlough for travel industry  to avoid further job losses.

“Travellers must also be supported with measures taken to offset the cost of these additional tests by reducing the cost of PCR testing – including a price cap and the removal of VAT.

“It’s vitally important this decision is reversed as quickly as possible, in line with scientific and medical advice, as it is simply not possible for the travel industry to recover properly while this huge barrier to consumer confidence is in place.”

Julia Lo Bue-Said, chief executive of the Advantage Travel Partnership, commented on Twitter: “Once again we’re at the mercy of govt that cannot seem to communicate with each other. Yesterday @grantshapps assures no pre-departure tests that risk killing off the travel sector, tonight his fellow cabinet member fires what will be a fatal bullet for many travel agents.”

Richard Slater, owner of Henbury Travel, highlighted the Abta statement in a letter to Huw Merriman MP, who is the chair of the transport select committee, and his own local MP, David Rutley, about restrictions on travel.

“Bookings being cancelled in droves, financial support is needed for agents. Still waiting for the restart grant top-up. All the beauty businessses near me, taken grants and closed. Nice earner if you can get it,” he said on Twitter.

Joanne Dooey, president of the Scottish Passenger Agents’ Association (SPAA), described the announcement as “the early Christmas present none of us in the travel sector wanted or needed”.

“It’s a crushing blow for the travel sector in Scotland and travel agents are truly battle weary,” she said.

“We expect that travel agents’ phones will be ringing off the hook with customers who wish to cancel or postpone their holidays, business trips and Christmas visits to families overseas.

“The reintroduction of pre-departure testing and the fact that countries can be placed on the ‘red list’ with less than 48 hours’ notice will plunge agents back into a chaotic world of client repatriations where countries can be red listed at the drop of a hat.

“The damage being wreaked on the Scottish travel sector is incalculable.

“It’s an atrocious position for travel agents to be in after such dire trading positions throughout the pandemic and we’re asking that the Scottish government recognises that our members need sector specific support and they need it urgently.”

Agents were also angry about the timing of the announcement, made by health secretary Sajid Javid on Saturday evening, just a day after transport secretary Grant Shapps had said pre-departure tests for UK arrivals were not on the cards.

Amanda Matthews, managing director of Designer Travel, tweeted: “@grantshapps Saturday again for a major travel announcement. You have zero respect for our industry and you of all people should be aware of how this will impact us all! Still ok to go to clubs, bars, trains, events #joke”

Off Broadway Travel said on Twitter: “Seriously @BorisJohnson @grantshapps @sajidjavid I’m about to have my 40th anniversary in travel dinner party and instead I am contacting my clients abroad giving them more bad news about having to test on the way home! Why release this on a Saturday night? Why not yesterday!!!!”

Rob Kenton, managing director of Triangle Travel, said on Twitter: “I am done with you @grantshapps. Yesterday you said the opposite…@RishiSunak start preparing grants for the travel industry now to pay first thing Monday morning.. My sort code is ….”

Julie Franklin, head of agency sales at Hotelplan, also took to Twitter to berate Shapps and prime minister Boris Johnson, saying: “@BorisJohnson @grantshapps do you mind answering the hundeds of texts, emails and messages that we are now getting with customers we have in resort or flying tomorrow for 3 days in lapland to tell them how they get tests before returning home? fun Saturday night ahead!!”

Sean Doyle, British Airways’ chairman and chief executive, said: “The blanket re-introduction of testing to enter the UK, on top of the current regime of isolation and PCR testing on arrival is completely out of step with the rest of the world, with every other country taking a measured approach based on the science.

“Our customers will now be faced with uncertainty and chaos and yet again this a devastating blow for everyone who works in the travel industry.”

Karen Dee, Airport Operators’ Association chief executive, also said the tightening of restrictions will be a “devastating blow for aviation and tourism”.

“Pre-departure tests act as a major deterrent to travel and most of the limited remaining demand following the reintroduction of self-isolation will now fall away, just as airports were hoping for a small uplift over the Christmas holiday,” she said.

“Travel and aviation are the only sectors hit with any operating restrictions in response to the Omicron variant.

“The UK and devolved governments should have done the right thing and, alongside the restrictions, announced support for our businesses and our staff to get through another period of shutdown.

“Hundreds of thousands of jobs rely on air travel – government must recognise this and provide the support needed to safeguard this critical infrastructure upon which our economic recovery from the pandemic depends.”

Clive Wratten, chief executive of the Business Travel Association, commented: “The introduction of pre-departure testing with little warning is a hammer blow to the business travel industry. It directly contradicts the transport secretary’s comments this week.

“Public safety is a priority but businesses will fail, travellers will be stranded and livelihoods devastated by the lack of coherent plans from the government.

“Today, travel as a whole is the only sector facing operating restrictions in the UK. This must be acknowledged and support provided by the government.

“Above all, government must talk to the industry and give us an exit plan that ensures the survival of our sector.”

Lisa Henning, managing director of The Inspire Group, said: “This is another massively disappointing government update and a further blow to the industry, coming  less than 24 hours after Grant Shapps ruled out pre-arrival tests.

 “Whilst most industries are making some recovery from the pandemic, the travel industry continues to be so badly impacted and this latest testing requirement is going to have a major impact on consumer confidence. It also appears that travel is being treated completely unfairly, given that you aren’t required to complete any tests prior to attending large sporting events, concerts, parties or eating out in restaurants.

“I strongly believe, more than ever, we have a case for sector specific support and hope that as an industry we now upscale our lobbying efforts.”

 Martin Chalk, general secretary of pilots’ union Balpa, pointed out that current World Health Organisation (WHO) advice says: “Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods. In addition, they can adversely impact global health efforts during a pandemic by disincentivising countries to report and share epidemiological and sequencing data.”

Chalk added: “Travel rules have been tightened twice in less than a week. The new costs and stress of travel seem designed to destroy confidence in air travel, and the idea of families being confident in booking to re-unite over the holidays, many for the first time since Covid, is now a cruel joke.

“The government’s actions and restrictions are risking our jobs, our livelihoods and our industry.

“Balpa wrote only 48 hours ago to urge the government to fund all mandatory tests for travellers and not leave it to ‘cowboy’ private testing companies. The cost to Treasury would be negligible.

“The Omicron and government-induced uncertainty also demands a winter resilience fund for aviation.

“Vital aviation industry skills, including those of pilots, will carry the ambitions of the whole country as we recover. Government must invest both cash and coherent support in the recovery now.”

Picture by iMoStudio/Shutterstock

MorePre-departure tests to return from Tuesday

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