'The vaccine is supposed to let us live': Travel leaders call for an end to draconian restrictions

·19-min read
"We will have to live long term with Covid – and we must start learning how to do so now." - Getty
"We will have to live long term with Covid – and we must start learning how to do so now." - Getty

Ahead of an official announcement today, it is feared that overseas holidays could remain off the cards until the summer – at best. Here, travel leaders outline why the Governments needs to be bolder.

‘People who have been vaccinated should be allowed to travel’

Chris McIntyre, founder of Expert Africa:

Yesterday I spoke to the owner of a small operator in Zambia. She and her family had built up a few great, small safari camps over the last 20 years. They’d trained their staff from scratch, funded local schools and clinics, helped found an orphanage and, like many such camps, had a massive impact on poverty over the years. Now, as she said, she’s “looking down the barrel of another crippling year”.

She’s not the only one: seven per cent of Zambia’s economy depends on tourism. Like much of sub-Saharan Africa, the majority of her visitors come from the UK – so the introduction of mandatory hotel quarantine for arrivals from 33 ‘red list’ countries, including Zambia, was devastating.

Staff there are more like family. She’s managed to keep some income for almost all of her team so far, but she just can’t see how that will continue this year. On average, each wage-earner in Zambia supports 10 people – so this will hit poor communities there very hard indeed. Over the whole pandemic, Covid is responsible for fewer than 1,000 deaths in Zambia; rising poverty will be a much bigger killer there.

Meanwhile, this hotel quarantine will be the death-knell for many UK travel businesses also. Nobody wants to take a foreign holiday if they then have to tag on 10 days in a cramped Heathrow hotel – so it’s effectively a travel ban.

Despite all of this, I’d accept the new hotel quarantine rules as a sacrifice for the good of the country’s health, if they made sense. But they don’t.

The Government’s own Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) comment that this kind of measure “cannot be relied upon to stop importation of new variants.” The only way to do that is New Zealand-style isolation – which won’t work for ‘global Britain’.

Clearly now there is a better way: UK numbers of Covid-cases are heading downhill fast – squeezed by months of lockdown and the shrinking of the pool of the number of potential hosts who are not yet vaccinated.

We can now start easing lockdown: slowly and cautiously. People who have been vaccinated should be allowed to travel – with vaccine passports. Others should quarantine at home on their return, regardless of where they have come from, and effective monitoring should be put in place for this.

The policy of hotel quarantines should be scrapped before it does real damage, to the UK and those who rely on us across the world.

‘Common sense has deserted the Government’

Noel Josephides, Director of Aito:

Along with many millions of others, I’ve had my first vaccination. After three weeks, I’m told, I’ll have substantial immunity. My second jab will be in mid-April.

Holidays are good for our wellbeing and mental health – so why shouldn’t I book an overseas holiday now, travelling after May 1, if the overseas destination will accept me?

The vaccine is meant to enable us to live, not simply to prevent us from dying. If we are not given the freedom to travel, and to return without quarantine, we’re effectively imprisoned on our island.

Specialist tour operators and travel agents have not traded for a year. During this period, we’ve had to refund every penny we’ve received from customers, without any payment for the work required to create – and then dismantle – the holidays booked. Often we’ve used our own modest reserves to refund flights/accommodation that haven’t been refunded to us.

It is plain that the Government, mistakenly, considers us to be expendable. It believes that, having struggled endlessly to stay afloat – with no sector-specific support – we can simply be replaced by others with fresh capital.

To extend lockdown for travel beyond April 30 will be disastrous for many firms, leading to the loss of expert staff with years of accumulated travel know-how that isn’t easily replaceable. It will also spell disaster for many overseas suppliers and their families.

We need to trade; we need cash flow to keep our teams employed. The financial risk to the consumer booking with a licensed operator is zero. If you don’t book now, you may well find flights cancelled and hotels closed – it is the early booking flow levels which determine capacity decisions for the entire season to come.

Tour operating is complicated. Governments and others, believing themselves to be experts on our sector, have never bothered to understand its intricacies. Aito members craft their holidays with passion; their souls are embedded in what they create. They are innovators, environmentally aware, and pride themselves on their professionalism.

All this is in danger of collapse because, somehow, common sense has deserted government decision-making. We will have to live long term with Covid – as we do with malaria, flu, dengue fever, yellow fever and a host of other viruses and diseases – and we must start learning how to do so now. Make a stand – book your holiday now!

‘An abundance of caution is never a good thing’

Jonny Bealby, founder of Wild Frontiers:

On Monday, Boris must give us some hope. Having ministers stating it is illegal to book summer holidays (which is plainly wrong) and others saying it’s too early, is driving an unreasonably negative message which might be hard to rebound from.

This week saw the launch of a campaign called Save our Summer, in which more than 600 UK travel companies vowed to allow free transfers or give prompt refunds for anyone booking a holiday that then can’t be taken due to the Covid pandemic. There is therefore almost no risk whatever to the customer and yet this not only gives us in the industry hope, hope we can pass on to our friends and partners around the world, it also gives our customers something to look forward to: a positive impact on our mental health that should not be overlooked.

The UK travel industry generates billions in revenue and employs more than 2 million people. Many of us have seen little or no income for the past 12 months and have no hope of seeing any for a while yet. Many have ceased trading, many jobs have been lost.

By May, 99% of those at risk from serious illness and death in the UK will be vaccinated and safe. We will never be in a Covid-free world, some risk will always be there. Caution we accept, but an abundance of caution is never a good thing. To quote Seth Godin: “Seeking reassurance and peace of mind by trying to drive risk to zero doesn’t get you either one of them.” We are not New Zealand and a closed border lockdown will never be viable in the country as connected as the UK. And with the startling success of the vaccine programme, neither should it be necessary.

So yes, be cautious – but not too cautious that you kill our industry.

‘Hotels are one of the best managed and safest spaces to be’

James and Tamara Lohan, Co-Founders of Mr & Mrs Smith:

We understand the necessity of lockdown to save lives and relieve pressure on the NHS. However, travel isn’t something that can be switched on at the drop of a hat. We desperately need a roadmap so our customers, hoteliers, airlines and everyone in between can prepare for saving not just the summer but our industry. With infection rates, hospitalisations and deaths thankfully decreasing and the vaccine rollout at full speed, now’s the time to be bold. Without definitive dates and continued mixed messages in the media, the Government is creating costly and unnecessary obstacles for a sector already on its knees.

It’s been an enormously stressful time for Mr & Mrs Smith, as it has been for anyone in our industry. Furlough has helped, but we’re unable to maximise its purpose because of the service we must provide to confused customers who in their thousands are booking, cancelling and amending trips in response to the latest headline or throwaway comment by a minister.

The biggest frustration is that, despite being last on the list for re-opening, hotels are not linked to high numbers of cases and are not a leading environment for transmission. Hotels are one of the best managed and safest spaces to be: separate rooms, highly trained staff, socially-distanced restaurants, cleaning teams and meticulously managed Covid-19 protocols (in place since the first lockdown). This has been corroborated by a recent research study conducted by UKHospitality and CGA.

We must have clarity if we’re to survive – not just as a business, but as an industry that’s the third largest employer in the UK, responsible for three million jobs directly and a further 1.8 million indirectly.

‘We must consider the impact travel restrictions are having in poorer countries’

Mark Houldsworth, Managing Director of Nomad Safaris:

We are a company which provides a booking platform for tour operators and travel agents – from the UK and around the world – for travel in East Africa. We’ve lost 90 per cent of our 2020 revenue and whilst things look busy for 2021, much of that could evaporate if the Government fails to deliver reassuring signals.

We are involved across a wide spectrum of the industry from the consumer-facing tour operators through to the safari guides and camps on the ground and we have seen the huge impact on all. The pandemic has sent shock waves through the whole industry, which now sits on a knife edge.

The industry itself has reacted to the current situation with a raft of proactive measures offering flexibility, reliability & security to travellers. The vast majority of trips from last year were postponed on goodwill to help us all survive and suddenly we find ourselves looking down the barrel of a second high season in Africa with hugely reduced visitor numbers. This will be devastating for the smaller business that don’t have strong trade relationships or financial reach. Our efforts are being undermined by a Government with frequently ill-considered and last-minute policy announcements.

Each tourist job in Africa supports a further eight people - Getty
Each tourist job in Africa supports a further eight people - Getty

But it is not just in the UK where the problem ends. This directly impacts our partners in Africa who are struggling even more, without the support mechanisms we enjoy here. All their efforts are focused on providing for their staff, maintaining a presence in vital wilderness areas and supporting communities on their peripheries, who are critical to wildlife survival at this time.

It’s estimated that each tourist job in Africa supports a further eight people and whilst we’re right to be sensibly cautious in our approach to safe travel, it’s equally important that we move away from the UK’s current insular outlook and take account of the crucial impact our travelling decisions have amongst the poorer corners of the globe. We have no expectation for the immediate lifting of travel bans but with a lead time for long haul bookings of 6-12 months it’s important that an element of confidence in future prospects is injected into the market now. The industry needs certainty, and it needs it now.

‘We have enough cash to survive another month, but not another six’

Serena von der Heyde, owner of Georgian House Hotel in Pimlico and Victorian House Hotel in Grasmere:

My mother inherited the Georgian House Hotel when I was 19, and I’ve spent the last 30 years running the business and building a team dedicated to the constant improvement of the guest experience. The year before last was our best year ever, so I expanded with a second hotel: the Victorian House Hotel in Grasmere, with a plan to launch in March 2020.

We had to close both hotels in March 2020 for the first lockdown – the Victorian House Hotel had been open a matter of weeks. The Georgian House Hotel didn’t qualify for grant support. The business was losing cash fast. We quickly realised that we couldn’t continue with all of our team, and within a month we made 25 of our 50 colleagues redundant. It is still the hardest thing I have faced. Breaking up the team we had been developing for so long left me with a profound sense of failure. On top of that the rate at which our bank balance was dropping meant that I was really frightened about whether the business would survive. I didn’t sleep properly for weeks.

We re-opened both hotels in August at the end of lockdown. We prepared for social distancing, did the risk assessments and training and bought the PPE. In Grasmere, the Victorian House Hotel took lots of bookings and the business took off with safe, happy guests and staff.

In London it was a different story. Throughout the summer we had a handful of bookings and only a few of our staff were un-furloughed. In January we started to get bookings for this summer and autumn, but again this optimism was halted by the recent government statements telling people not to book holidays... so more cancellations. I do wonder whether ministers realise the direct fallout from their announcements. We have had a negative cash flow since last March. I know the business can’t start to recover until we can open and trade again. We have enough cash to survive another month or so, but not another six months.

We did a really good job operating at both hotels with social distancing measures during the summer and we had no Covid cases. I know that when we are allowed to open we can care for our guests safely and I desperately want the chance to keep my business afloat.

‘Government departments are simply not listening’

Ed Paine, managing director, Last Frontiers:

All UK tour operators are waiting expectantly for ministers to finally give us a sensible roadmap out of the bleak landscape that we have been consigned to. Previous pleas around testing and opaque Foreign Office advice have been ignored, with the overall impression of government departments that are simply not listening, and instead we have been subjected to inconsistent and poorly thought out measures such as the recent hotel quarantine for a highly selective group of countries.

If the foreign travel ban is to remain then we, like the performing arts sector, need proper financial compensation during the period that our business has been outlawed. We should also, as a nation, consider helping poorer countries than our own via the provision of vaccine supplies. If we are not allowed to help their tourist industry, at least we can help protect their people.

‘Travel could soon become the preserve of the privileged’

Stephen Ellison, head of marketing at Vintage Travel:

Over the past 30 years, we have forged relationships with our individual villa owners, many of whom have been greatly affected by the lockdowns of last year. With the prospect of early season bookings facing massive delays yet again, the future does not look promising. We are all working in the hope that we may salvage something of the year from July onwards to be able to support our overseas partners – if we cannot send them clients again this year, despite our longstanding relationships, it will become a matter of survival for them and they will understandably look for other markets.

Just as many people in this country will be taking ‘staycations’, it is exactly the same in Spain, France, Italy and Portugal, where the people there will be staying at home in greater numbers and will be looking for villa holidays. If we can at least have some kind of strategy that enables people to have the confidence to book now, with a real prospect of travelling this year, we may still be able to offer some availability and protect our traditional holiday markets.

Similarly, if flights are not booked now with a real prospect of them going ahead, aircraft will continue to be mothballed, crew stood down and our fear is that, with diminished availability, higher and exorbitant prices will follow. Without hope, we will be doomed to yet another year of loss making that for many in the wider travel industry will be disastrous, causing irreparable damage. For those that survive it will be a different landscape, with travel perhaps in the non-too distant future again becoming the preserve of the privileged?

We are all realistic, completely sympathetic and fully understanding of the necessity of the current restrictions, as do our customers; but without a sensible solution we all remain in limbo, awaiting guidance. This guidance needs to form a part of a comprehensive government plan, with clear tactical implementation – avoiding any more damaging ignorant throwaway personal remarks from government ministers.

‘Where before there was optimism now increasingly we see despair’

Michael Caines MBE, chef/patron of Lympstone Manor, Devon:

I don’t think it’s extreme nor is it scaremongering when we say that the industry is teetering on the edge right now; the reality is there will be many businesses that will not survive an extended lockdown. We are all hoping that we are able to open in a timely manner, ready for the Easter holidays and trade into the summer and beyond.

Regardless, I fear that this is not going to save every business because currently the tourism industry is being hit by so many different directions whether that’s a lack of overseas flights into the UK producing tourists and business clients alike that fuel our city-centre hotels and restaurants, or the non-existent event business, reduced capacity through social distancing or enforced curfews that our sector has had to endure.

Michael Caines - Matt Round
Michael Caines - Matt Round

We cannot escape the reality that in the past 12 months many businesses have only traded for six of them, whilst taking on significant loans to stay afloat, loans that will ultimately need to be paid back in time.

Whilst our staff are on furlough, our businesses continue to haemorrhage cash whilst closed. The staff on furlough [continue] with the prospect that they might not have a business to go back to work for. You simply can’t avoid these facts and where before there was optimism now increasingly we see despair and it’s very frustrating that we don’t have this road map to be able to plan a way out of this crisis and most importantly, support our sector over the coming years as it seeks to balance its books and recover on a tightrope of an economy that’s going to be challenge as it comes to terms also with the reality of Brexit.

Our supply chain has also been decimated by this crisis too and whilst we all agree that lives are to be protected we also struggle to balance this reality with the guilt of the self-need to survive it.

‘We’ve been kicking the can down the road, and the road does not go on forever’

Dan Brod, co-owner of the Beckford Group, UK:

There is no valid argument for not opening most hospitality, particularly hotels, just after Easter. By then over 30 million people will have been vaccinated with the most vulnerable (over 70s) having had two doses. Hospital occupancy is falling and the NHS is not, thankfully, overwhelmed. A year in, and the public are now used to the various Covid measures in wider society, and those specifically, and at great expense, put into hospitality venues such as our small independent hotels.

Many are advocating for a re-opening before Easter, but if the Government insists, a cautious compromise of April 6 would be fine. There will never be no risks, we just need to know now. To put it clearly, afterwards would simply not be fine. Economic support has certainly helped, but it has also had the effect of “kicking the can down the road” and the road does not go on forever.

We are still required to pay rent on leasehold property, maintain our buildings, taxes have been temporarily deferred not forgiven, and the furlough scheme means we pay around 15 per cent of the payroll to 160 staff. Where is this meant to come from, even if there is (surely?) continued support with rates and VAT?

The domestic summer will be busy with staycation-mania, but remember, there will still be (rightly so) social distancing and hotels or restaurants can only be full, they cannot be more full. Our places would normally be 100 per cent full in the summer and so the staycation boom is not some kind of windfall that can plug the gap that has been created.

Furlough has saved many jobs in hospitality but paying people to do nothing is never good, and I worry about our staff every day. They need to come back to work now, and do what they do, fulfilling the social need for conviviality.

It is not too late to give hospitality a fighting chance of helping the wider economy recover – but that chance definitely involves opening sooner – not later.

‘People need something to look forward to’

Ross Marshall, CEO of YourGolfTravel and Spabreaks.com:

These are unprecedented times for our country as well as the wider travel industry. Having lost a family member during the pandemic, our thoughts are with everyone who has been affected by this terrible virus. We were due to send away over half a million travellers on trips before the pandemic started – which has meant a significant impact for both our customers and our businesses. Regrettably, we had to downsize in April last year and have used the furlough scheme widely to protect as many jobs as possible. Finding the right balance between maintaining high levels of service for our loyal and supportive customers and hibernating the businesses to mitigate losses is an ongoing challenge.

I joined the Save Our Summer campaign because, with the successful vaccination programme, we are undoubtedly in a better position this year than we were last year when the Government allowed significant international travel. We need the Prime Minister to set out a clear roadmap to restart domestic and international travel operations. We believe that this should be in May. As well as the roadmap, we urge the PM to provide sector specific support through an extension of the furlough scheme to both the travel and aviation sectors plus further relief and extension of loan schemes that must continue to be available in order to save more of the industry’s 2.4 million jobs including in our own organisations. People need something to look forward to and the opportunity to travel with friends and loved ones home and abroad later this year will give millions across the country hope.