Well, quelle surprise. After more than a year into the administration of a government whose policies and rhetoric I generally struggle with (especially on immigration and borders), I finally have a reason to be grateful to Boris Johnson. And grateful I am, as the announcement from last Monday on the resumption of international travel, given the circumstances, really couldn’t have been any more positive for the travel industry. Make no mistake, Boris didn’t have to do this; he could easily have said that our roadmap to normality by June is dependent on the sacrifice of international travel for a year, and the public wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. Indeed, all current polling on borders and international travel suggests that this would have been a far more popular route to go down. However, the PM was bold and brave, and at last showed an inclination to listen to the experts within the travel industry itself and their dire warnings of mass unemployment if this Summer was to be another wash-out. The revival of the travel task force, this time including figureheads from travel businesses in the conversation, was further welcome news. To maintain the feeling of goodwill I will even forgive Priti Patel’s aberration and entire contradiction of the prime minister 48 hours later; we all make mistakes.
Mainstream media, hysteria over variants aside, has also been oddly helpful, in their seemingly deliberate misinterpretation of the PM’s words. Boris clearly did not state that international travel would resume on 17th May, he merely stated that no travel would be possible until at least the 17th May. However, as with the rest of the roadmap, the media has taken it as read that this date is fixed for our resumption. The positive effect of this is two-fold; firstly, it builds up consumer confidence and leads to a surge in Summer demand, and secondly, it makes it much harder for the government to row back from their plan without causing public discontent. When you have the politicians and the media on your side, you know it has been a good week.
For an example of how bad it could have been for us, we need look no further than our friends in Scotland. I would like to think that the Scottish First Minister is just being badly advised, but the cynic in me would question the political motives behind a policy on travel that would drive a wedge (potentially even a physical border) between England and Scotland. You have to feel for their aviation and tourism workforce; there is no roadmap, no glimmer of hope for them, just a constant bashing over the head from an administration determined not to let international travel happen this year (or indeed any year). The tour operators’ immediate response? To withdraw Summer flights from Aberdeen and other Scottish airports and warn of redundancies. As much as my sympathy lies with those workers affected, politicians must be given the clear message that their words and rhetoric have consequences in an industry upon which the UK economy relies so heavily.
There are of course, many unanswered questions regarding travel this Summer. Will we trust the cheap, rapid but potentially less reliable antigen tests, or will the resource-heavy, prohibitive PCR still be in place? Can we do away with quarantine entirely, or will some sort of quarantine still be required upon return to the UK? Will vaccination absolve us of the need for draconian measures? And how can we safely restart the cruise industry? I would hope that we will get the answers to many of these questions when the task force reports back in April, in good time for the Summer.
However, to dwell on these issues currently is to miss the point; after a desperate January and February, the industry needed hope. We aren’t out of the woods yet, and if we know one thing about Covid 19 it is the ability to catch you off guard just as you think the world can move on. Nevertheless, we have a basis to work on, we have a roadmap and a premise that the government wants to work with us to make travel in Summer 2021 possible. This is a massive step forward on recent government rhetoric; on this occasion, Boris has delivered.
Jason Brewer, March 2021