The UK travel industry has responded to the government’s decision to add no new countries to its updated green list and to relegate Portugal to amber with a mix of disappointment and despair.
By the time UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps confirmed that Portugal would indeed be moved from green to amber, a steady stream of leaks meant that the world and his dog already knew that the UK was, effectively, eliminating holiday travel for the time being.
Speaking to the BBC, Mr Shapps defended the government’s decision on the basis of two factors: “One is that the positivity rate [of infection] has almost doubled since the last review in Portugal,” he said.
“And the other is that there is a sort of Nepal mutation of the so-called Indian variant which has been detected. We just don’t know the potential for that to be a vaccine defeating mutation and simply don’t want to take the risk as we come up to 21 June and the review of the fourth stage of the [local UK] unlock.”
However, that reasoning isn’t washing with some in the industry.
EasyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren said he was shocked by the decision and that as Portuguese rates of infection are similar to those in the UK, it “simply isn’t justified by the science.”
“This decision essentially cuts the UK off from the rest of the world. While our European fleet is gearing up for summer as European governments open up travel, the UK government is making it impossible for airlines to plan,” he added.
A British Airways spokesperson said: “This is incredibly disappointing and confusing news, not just for aviation, but also for our customers.”
Steve Norris Managing Director EMEA of Flight Centre said that while he understand the government’s need to keep a close eye on emerging variants, he was “flummoxed by their decision to make changes to the traffic light system with such little notice. Earlier this year, Grant Shapps promised a two-to-three-week notice period, or ‘green watchlist’ before a country changed from green to amber in order to prevent another summer of stop-start travel.”
Tui UK managing director Andrew Flintham called the decision “another step back” for travel and said the government has broken its promise to remove the “damaging flip flopping” of summer 2020.
Virgin Atlantic chief executive Shai Weiss said the traffic light system failed to provide the clarity and consistency consumers needed and accused ministers of not following the data.
The Worst-Performing Economy
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s PM programme, Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye said: “Britain is the worst performing economy in the G7 and in the week the Prime Minister hosts G7 leaders, he is sending a message that the UK will remain isolated from the rest of the world and closed to most of its G7 partners.
“Rapid action is needed to reopen flights to key trading partners, remove testing for vaccinated passengers from green countries and slash the cost and complexity of testing.”
More Support for Agents
ABTA chief executive Mark Tanzer struck a slightly more conciliatory note: “It’s clear that the Government’s domestic health strategy is continuing to prevent any meaningful resumption of international travel. You can’t build the recovery of a multi-billion-pound sector while mass market holiday destinations remain off the green list. The removal of Portugal comes on the back on what was already a very short and cautious green list.
“The Government now needs to come forward with tailored financial support for the sector, which recognises that the travel industry’s recovery will be slower than that in other sectors of the economy, and takes account of the unique challenges businesses in the sector are facing. Travel companies are desperately worried that at a time when the market hasn’t opened up they will shortly face increased furlough and business rates costs, with support being gradually withdrawn from the end of this month. It’s vital that the Government doesn’t leave these businesses behind as it focuses on the domestic unlocking.
“We also need to see the Government use the next review of the traffic-light system, on 28 June, to deliver meaningful progress towards restart. Ministers must use that review to finally take the steps needed to capitalise on the great progress of the vaccine rollout in the UK. For example, many countries have chosen to exempt fully vaccinated individuals from certain travel requirements. The Government should also treat islands separately in the traffic light system and take steps to further reduce the cost of testing.”