- Published on 6 January 2021
As I start to write, the gut-wrenching yet somewhat inevitable misery of a third national lockdown is being imposed on the UK. And as much as my every instinct screams out for rebellion, the grim numbers speak for themselves- realistically at this stage it is the only option available to Boris Johnson’s government, and is likely to be in place for some time.
After enduring a catastrophic 2020, our beloved industry is teetering on the brink of armageddon, and even before the latest surge, the extent of recovery in 2021 looked desperately uncertain. Now, we can sadly write off the Winter season as a non-starter and start to plan as best we can for a make-or-break Summer 2021.
Amongst the many variables and unknowns, for me there are 2 key factors in our recovery. The first and most obvious is the rate and extent of the vaccination programmes, both in the UK and in the main holiday destinations. This is actually the lesser of my worries- we won’t go into our government’s record on delivering efficiently and as promised, but surely, even allowing for extreme incompetency, the vulnerable in our society will be vaccinated by April. This, combined with a natural fall as we head out of Winter, will surely be enough to see infection rates low enough to permit travel across Europe in Summer (outside of Europe the success of vaccination is likely to be far more varied).
Of more concern, in my view, is how governments will react as they start to see a sustained drop in infection rates, with three broad possible outcomes. Will they allow free travel (and reentry into the UK) from across the globe, the ideal pre-covid travel scenario, knowing that through vaccination and infection the population has a high degree of immunity? This to me seems extremely unlikely at this stage, as the fear of importing vaccine-resistant mutant strains continues to loom. Will they continue with the deeply flawed travel corridor policy of 2020? I fear that this is sadly our most likely and best case scenario, although we can at least hope for more stability in the rules regarding travel to countries who have achieved mass vaccination.
More worryingly, a third scenario is starting to be mooted by certain British scientists and medics which will keep travel industry bosses awake at night- the possibility of pursuing a “zero covid” policy when infection rates are low, keeping rigorous Australian-style border controls throughout the rest of 2021 in an effort to eliminate the virus from our shores. Several high-profile key advisers in the pandemic response have written recently in national newspapers as increasingly big proponents of this strategy, proposing border closures and restrictions throughout Spring and Summer 2021 to eliminate covid. As appealing as this sounds on paper, these scientists misunderstand how integrated we are with Europe in particular, how important travel links with mainland Europe are, and how much our economy depends upon aviation and the travel and tourism industry in general. To compare us with New Zealand is to compare chalk with cheese. The idea must not be allowed to gain traction, as it would mean oblivion for our airlines and tour operators, and all their supply chains, as well as the communities in Crawley, near Heathrow and near Luton, amongst many others across the UK, that have quite literally grown up with and depend upon their airports.
As the Summer events industry is currently attempting, the travel industry must pre-empt this, and seek imminent and public assurances that once vaccination is rolled out across the UK and Europe, normal travel conditions will resume. Ideally we would even start quantifying it- “once x% of the population in destination country Y is vaccinated, or the infection rate in destination country Y is below 50 in 100,000, country Y will be placed on the green travel corridor list”. This would also give certainty and targets to countries such as Spain and Italy that depend heavily on UK tourism.
However, achieving government buy-in on this will undoubtedly be easier said than done; this is a government that plays to their crowd, and sadly their crowd tend to be the sort whose solution is to scream “CLOSE THE BORDERS!” at any issue the country happens to encounter. In fairness, outside of our travel industry echo chamber, border closures seem to have support in the wider population, and largely thanks to government rhetoric, the reputation of the industry has taken an unfair hammering in the pandemic. It is a very easy get-out for governments across the UK to blame their incompetence in controlling the virus on inbound travellers, and they have undoubtedly exaggerated the effect of this in order to cover some of their (many) failings. Sadly for our industry, it seems to be working, despite many studies showing that travelling in pandemics can be done safely and responsibly, and that COVID generally does not spread on aircraft.
On a final (related) point, support for the industry during this pandemic, an industry so important to the UK economy, has been nothing short of appalling. I refer not just to financial support which has been almost non-existent, but reputational support- as recently as last week Scottish ministers were rightly rebuked by Edinburgh Airport for advising people against booking Summer travel. Our customers have repeatedly been hammered by the media and by politicians simply for wanting to take a safe and well-earned break from our plethora of troubles. Rather than inspiring consumer confidence or allowing clarity on travel, the UK governments, both national and devolved, have thrown us all under the COVID bus. Fail to rectify this in the coming months and offer more certainty over Summer 2021 travel, and they may find that the nation’s favorite airlines, attractions, hotel brands and tour operators aren’t there when people need them again. This must not be allowed to happen. The reputational fightback and lobbying needs to start now.