The government has in effect warned Britons against planning a summer holiday this year, whether in the UK or abroad, prompting an angry reaction from the travel industry, which is warning that many firms in the sector could collapse.
The response from Abta, the UK’s trade association for holiday operators and travel agents, came after Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, cast doubt on a sufficiently rapid lifting of social distancing or travel restrictions imposed due to Covid-19.
“I won’t be booking a summer holiday at this point. Let’s put it that way,” Shapps told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme when asked if people should think about booking a break in the coming months.
“Clearly people will want to see what the trajectory of this disease is in the next few weeks,” he said. “We’ve just started to see a flattening of that tragic curve which shows the deaths each day, where they’re bubbling around at the same level, and the number of people going into intensive care, and the rest of it. But we’re not seeing the declines yet.”
Abta, which has warned of a mass collapse of travel companies due to the coronavirus pandemic, condemned Shapps’ advice.
“It was a thoughtless comment and not based on any facts about what we know today about the future of the pandemic, but it shows complete disregard for the UK travel industry, the hundreds of thousands of people it employs and the struggle it is facing in this current crisis,” it said in a statement.
“It would be better if the government focused on taking the necessary steps to support the sector rather than undermining confidence in it.”
However, Shapps received apparent support from Downing Street, with Boris Johnson’s spokesman noting that travel within the UK for holidays was still not allowed, while the Foreign Office had warned against all but essential overseas trips.
“While we are making progress in the fight against coronavirus, we are not able to say with certainty the point at which the social distancing measures can be relaxed,” he said. “As of today it is a fact that both the guidelines and the official Foreign Office advice do not allow for people going on holidays.”
Abta has urged the government to amend rules so travel firms are able to issue holidaymakers whose trips have been cancelled due to coronavirus with credit notes, at least in the short term, rather than cash refunds. Under EU rules they must offer a refund within 14 days.
It also wants a hardship fund to help pay for refunds, and a change to the 14-day limit.
“The existing financial protection structures and regulations were not designed to cope with a large-scale collapse of businesses,” Mark Tanzer, the chief executive of Abta, said last month.
The organisation has warned that without the changes many thousands of jobs could be lost as travel companies collapse.
Asked about the threat to the sector, Shapps told the BBC he could not offer travel firms further guidance as to when restrictions could change, as that was a matter for scientific advice. The impact of the pandemic would reshape many industries, including travel and tourism, he predicted.
“I can’t sugarcoat this for you,” Shapps said. “The government has gone to extraordinary lengths to come up with all manner of schemes to do what is, in terms of global responses, one of the most comprehensive [business support] packages.
“But we know that we won’t be able to save every single business in every single circumstance. It would be wrong for me to sit here and tell you that there will be no changes as a result of this.”