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Ian McConnell: British exceptionalism is no comfort at all to international travel sector

THERE seemed to be at least a hint of British exceptionalism around the UK Government’s latest pronouncements on international travel.

However, the outpouring of national pride we have been seeing south of the Border will be cold comfort to a travel sector hoping desperately for some more substantial news on when it might be able to start in a meaningful way along the long and difficult path towards some kind of normality.

The overseas travel sector, as well as being a major employer, contributes very significantly to UK economic output. This is obvious from even the briefest consideration of the combined scale of airports and related aviation services operations, airlines, holiday companies, and travel agents, and that is before we get to the importance of overseas visitors to the Scottish and broader UK economies.

The degree to which members of the Conservative Government seem unable to avoid making comments which smack of one-upmanship on handling Covid-19 is, from an external perspective, utterly remarkable. Only the Government ministers themselves will know the extent to which their proclamations are aimed deliberately at painting a picture of UK superiority, as opposed to just coming across that way inadvertently.

UK Government ministers should also bear in mind, as they continue to try to focus everyone’s attention on the roll-out of coronavirus vaccines, the very big mistakes made by their administration during the pandemic.

These have included locking down far too late several times in the face of rising Covid-19 cases. And remember, weeks after it became clear the second wave was developing across mainland Europe, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was declaring late last summer that it was time for people to be heading back into offices. He was eventually forced to U-turn on this. Chancellor Rishi Sunak was later forced to U-turn on his repeated refusals to extend the coronavirus job retention scheme. Both politicians were overtaken by reality.

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Much has been made of a different attitude to international travel north and south of the Border.

Scotland has undoubtedly taken a more cautious approach, for example on hotel quarantine requirements.

And, of course, when it comes to what happens in Scotland and in other parts of the UK, public health considerations must be prioritised in the continuing efforts to save lives.

It is also incumbent on all of those who lead us to ensure politics does not drive international travel decisions (the same applies to any policy-making relating to the pandemic). As well as being the right thing to do, politicians owe it to the huge numbers of people employed throughout the UK in the international travel sector to make sure this is the case, ensuring the re-start of holidays occurs at the right speed and with the correct choices to maximise the chances of success.

 

Boris Johnson Picture: Toby Melville/PA

Not only that but, when overseas travel decisions based on Covid-19 infection and vaccine rates are announced, it will be easier for people to understand them if they are not lathered with comments that, whether it is the intention or not, appear aimed at making political capital and have a tone of one-upmanship.

In this context, a comment from Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps last week, as the UK Government disappointed the travel sector in a major way with the announcement of a very narrow “green list” of countries that people in England could visit from May 17 without the need to quarantine on return, was unfortunate.

Who knows what Mr Shapps intended. And the UK’s successful vaccine roll-out has undoubtedly put it in a better place on the coronavirus front, albeit after previous lamentable decision-making from the Conservative Government. However, whatever his intention, the tone of Mr Shapps’ statement seemed from an external viewpoint to be very heavy indeed on the exceptionalism front.

Mr Shapps declared: “Our success in combating Covid here…is not yet replicated in many places abroad. We in this country have managed to construct a fortress against Covid but the disease is still prevalent in other parts of the world.”

It is difficult to escape the notion that the second sentence is particularly heavy on the politics.

The “green list” of destinations not requiring quarantine on return, unveiled last week by the UK Government, includes Portugal, Gibraltar, Israel and Iceland. Among other places on the green list are the Falkland Islands and South Sandwich Islands.

Meanwhile, major holiday destinations such as Spain, France, Italy and Greece are on the amber list.

The UK Government indicated when it announced the green list that it would be reviewed every three weeks.

Meanwhile, Mr Shapps was forthright on his view on countries on the amber list, declaring: “You should not be travelling to these places right now.”

 

HeraldScotland: Rishi Sunak Picture: Aaron Chown/PARishi Sunak Picture: Aaron Chown/PA

The disappointment of the international travel sector was palpable.

Andrew Flintham, managing director of holiday firm TUI in the UK and Ireland, declared: “While we were expecting to see just a handful of destinations on the green list, this is an overly cautious start.”

EasyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren said: “The decision to put so few European countries into the green tier is simply not justified by the data or the science, and is inconsistent with the approach to reopen the domestic economy.”

It was a relatively robust response from the sector to the plans of a UK Government which has, in terms of the tone of its pronouncements at least, seemed more bullish about the prospects for international travel than the Scottish Government. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon yesterday announced that quarantine-free overseas travel would also be possible from Scotland from May 17 to the green list of countries announced by the UK Government, although she urged people to “err on the side of caution” on holidays abroad.

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Mr Lundgren’s comment about the Johnson Government’s international travel reopening plans being “inconsistent” with the approach to the domestic economy gets to the heart of what will likely be heated debate over coming weeks on what is appropriate on the overseas holidays front amid the pandemic. His comment about the lack of European countries on the list is also notable.

This is not the first time the UK Government’s announcements on the reopening of international travel have fallen short of expectations. That is not to say that expectations should dictate the pace of reopening but just to highlight a significant degree of caution on this front from the Johnson Government. This caution contrasts with what has appeared at times to be impatience on reopening the domestic economy or tardiness in ramping up restrictions at points last year. Of course, caution is important on all fronts.

Travel operators took quite different decisions in the wake of publication in April of the UK Government’s Global Travel Taskforce report which, perhaps unsurprisingly given its lack of answers relative to the questions it threw up at that juncture, came without much fanfare.

Jet2 moved swiftly at that stage to cancel flights and package holidays until June 23. In contrast, package holiday giant TUI stuck with its plan of recommencing holidays from May 17.

How international travel will develop over the summer is no clearer in Scotland than in England. However, it was interesting yesterday to see Ms Sturgeon, although she appealed to people to favour “staycations”, following the same path as the UK Government for now in terms of reintroducing some quarantine-free travel.

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While public health must absolutely remain the priority, something that is underlined by the current coronavirus woes of some other countries and by the emergence of significant numbers of Covid-19 variants, there are some reasons to be more optimistic on the international travel front.

International vaccine success has undoubtedly paved the way for a return to greater normality. Much was made of European Union countries being far behind the UK early in the vaccine programme but they are now catching up. This is good news for everyone, and something to be celebrated, regardless of an appalling attitude from some Brexiters who have seemed to almost delight in European countries being behind.

However, it is undoubtedly going to be a long road ahead. Governments must make decisions based on the science, with an acute awareness of public health considerations, and provide as much certainty as possible to consumers and the travel sector. For many consumers, decisions on international travel will be very difficult. And travel companies and insurers have a key role to play in this context in terms of providing the maximum possible reassurance, through flexible refund policies and adequate cover.

Crucially, companies working in the international travel sector must receive adequate government assistance until such times as they can trade more normally, to preserve capacity, and employees must also be supported. Overseas travel will be as vital as ever to the mental health of many as we hopefully get past the worst of the pandemic, and preserving capacity will be key to affordability and accessibility.

And it would most definitely be very good indeed if politics do not figure in any deliberations or even in the tone of announcements on international travel. Exceptionalism is of negative value in these important matters and any impression that it is playing any kind of part, whether inadvertent or not, must be painstakingly avoided. This might be a challenge for some in the UK Government who have been at pains for years now to whip up British or English nationalist sentiment. But there is too much at stake in the recovery from the coronavirus crisis, for businesses, the economy and consumers, for any such petty politics.



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