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Defence secretary under fire for dampening summer holiday hopes

Industry figures have criticised a senior cabinet minister and a leading scientist for refusing to rule out the government extending a ban on foreign holidays.

Defence secretary Ben Wallace said booking a holiday now will be “premature” and “potentially risky”, adding “we are seeing growing variants”.

His comments on Sunday came after Dr Mike Tildesley, of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling group, which feeds into Sage, saying that overseas holidays this summer were “extremely” unlikely.

Aito members reported a dramatic slowdown in bookings over the weekend, just as confidence had picked up with the success of the UK’s vaccination programme.

The organisation has written to Tildesley pointing out that reservations fell to almost zero as a “direct result” of his comments.

Aito chairman Chris Rowles said: “It seems to have been overlooked that 17th May, the earliest date for international travel to restart, is more than two months away.

“Destinations are working hard to ensure that visitors and locals alike will be safe when travel recommences – subject of course to one and all wearing face masks, socially distancing and hand washing, as recommended, for the foreseeable future.

“All we ask is for some common sense to be used.  Let’s wait until the Global Task Force has assessed the situation fully and properly, in three weeks’ time.

“Meanwhile, consumers are of course permitted to book holidays with fully-bonded and licensed companies such as Aito and Abta members, safe in the knowledge that their money and their holiday are fully protected and that they have something to look forward to at last.

“Our suppliers – the airlines and accommodation providers – need to know that bookings are in the pipeline to give them the confidence to put on flights and to open hotels and other accommodation.”

Advantage Travel Partnership chief executive Julia Lo-Bue-Said tweeted: “Casting doubt on summer holidays now some 3 weeks ahead of when the Global Travel Taskforce are set to make their recommendations is unnecessary. Meetings have involved industry, I was there alongside others, so why has an advisor to Sage not fed into GTT instead of the press?

“We have now seen politicians ride on the bandwagon too. I did hear one do the right thing not getting drawn into a personal view pending GTT report.

“If it’s about data, commenting with any authority now is irresponsible.”

Suggestions also emerged that the reinstated Global Travel Taskforce is considering a traffic light-type system that could enable British holidaymakers quarantine-free travel to low rick ‘green list’ countries.

Destinations deemed more risky would be placed on a ‘red’ list with tougher restrictions, the Financial Times reported. The proposals are being drawn up in an attempt to circumvent nervousness among leading scientists over reopening UK borders.

The US, Israel and Singapore have reportedly been identified as countries where vaccination levels could enable travel to resume

The taskforce is due to report on April 12 on whether it is safe to allow international travel no earlier than May 17 under the government’s Covid roadmap.

Wallace said: “I’m not going to rule anything in or out. We are not going to do anything that puts at risk this national effort to control this pandemic. All the indications are in the right direction at the moment, and let’s take it step by step.

“It’s very, very important that we see not only how the pandemic is developing abroad, but also that we see how we are dealing with it and the vaccinations.

“I think our number one consideration is that even though the United Kingdom is almost leading the world on vaccination rates… it’s really important that we don’t import new variants and undermine all that hard work.

“We are not going to do anything which puts at risk this national effort to control this pandemic,” he told the BBC.

Wallace told Sky News the government “cannot be deaf and blind to what is going on outside the UK” and added that the government will not take a position on international travel before the taskforce reports on April 12.

Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of Consverative backbenchers, told The Times that killing off hopes of foreign summer holidays could also deter some people from getting the vaccine.

He said: “The huge success of Britain’s vaccination programme, together with the steps taken by the travel industry, mean that British people should be able to look forward to holidays abroad this summer.

“For many younger people, the prospect of international travel is the main reason they will have the vaccine. If travel doesn’t reopen on 17th May it will be a disaster for the one million Brits whose livelihoods depend on aviation.”

Paul Charles, chief executive of the PC Agency travel consultancy who is leading the industry Save Our Summer campaign, said: “We’re still eight weeks away from a re-start of the travel sector and the government has the time to introduce measures which balance public health with mental health.

“Widespread testing on arrival at the airport, as well as the introduction of a clear traffic light system, would enable safe and responsible overseas travel to resume, while also protect two million jobs at risk if travel this summer can’t be saved.”

Airlines UK chief executive Tim Alderslade said: “It is too early to say what the state of Covid will be in Europe and globally in 10 weeks’ time.

“Our focus between now and then must be working with ministers on a framework for travel that is robust and workable, and can stand the test of time as we enter the all-important summer period.

“We have always said any reopening must be risk-based, but also led by the overriding assumption that as the vaccine rollout accelerates both here and abroad, a phased easing of restrictions is achievable.

“We know that universal, restriction-free travel is unlikely from 17 May but under a tiered system, based on risk, international travel can meaningfully restart and build up, with minimal restrictions in time.”

Transport select committee chairman Huw Merriman tweeted: “UK vaccination programme is going well; we must continue with 12 April international travel plan for 17 May unlock.

“We cannot shut ourselves away forever or doom our travel industry and workforce.”

But Which? Travel editor Rory Boland said: “Government warnings about future international travel are a reminder that it’s still too early to book a flight or holiday. Some airlines and holiday providers claim it’s safe to book now thanks to flexible booking policies, but while the best policies can reduce the financial risk from disruption, they can’t remove it completely.

“Whether you have already booked or want to book, you should wait until the government’s travel taskforce reports on next steps before deciding what to do about your travel plans. The government must also make safety, affordable tests, vaccine passports and clarity about refunds when travel is disrupted a top priority.

“So far as it is possible, rules and requirements for travel should remain consistent, as confusion and changes will leave travellers footing the bill again and further risk undermining consumers’ confidence in booking travel.”

Meanwhile, the taskforce is reported to be considering airport ePassport gates for scanning negative Covid test results.

A source at Heathrow told the Telegraph on Saturday: “We as an industry have always been very keen on testing. The one thing we hate as an industry is quarantine.”

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