ABTA rejects Government take on support for travel

by Steve Hartridge

Transport secretary Grant Shapps drew a rebuke from ABTA on Wednesday after he rejected claims the Government had done too little to help the travel industry during the pandemic. 

In a pre-recorded message delivered during the travel body's first-ever digital convention, he said Downing Street 'appreciates and fully supports' a sector that was contributing £250 billion a year to the UK economy before the pandemic began and had provided billions of pounds for the sector.  

ABTA moderator Chris Ship suggested much of the industry might question his claim that the Government had been 'working flat out and with pace' to offer the right solutions to an industry that has long been calling for sector-specific support to help stem tens of thousands of job losses and company failures.  

But Shapps contented: "Because travel is so important, we have supported it with unprecedented measures, such as the furlough scheme which has benefitted 55,000 workers in the aviation industry alone," adding that 11% of the funds paid out under the Bank of England’s CCFF scheme went to the aviation sector.  

“The last time I looked that was £1.8 billion, around 11% of the total," he said 

Other support offered early in the pandemic, he pointed out, included grants and loans, and a pledge to underwrite refunds guaranteed under the ATOL scheme, which gave consumers 'peace of mind'. 

The transport secretary also flagged up the introduction of travel corridors in the summer and pointed to the new Government Global Travel Taskforce, set up last week, which he said would be ready to report its recommendations in early November. 

Those recommendations would be based around the conclusions made by various scientific, medical and health bodies in the UK and overseas, he said.  

However, the Taskforce will not include anyone from the travel industry.  

Shapps also parried suggestions that flights between the UK and countries in the European Union - currently protected by an “open-skies” agreement - could be grounded from January 1 2021 in the event of a no-deal Brexit. 

“We’re seeking arrangements that will maintain connectivity, he said.” 

 ABTA CEO Mark Tanzer gave a less than lukewarm reaction to Shapps' comments, describing them as 'very retrospective' and showing little recognition that the travel industry is still in the middle of a crisis that is likely to last for several more months. 

Remarking on the secretary's claim that setting up travel corridors had helped boost traveller confidence this summer, Tanzer said the corridors had 'existed in theory only' as 'the virus doesn't travel on a passport’.  

Adopting a whole country approach to quarantine measures made no sense and a regional approach was needed, he urged. 

"If we can set up a three-tier system in the UK that identifies individual cities and regions that demand specific isolation measures we can do it with destinations elsewhere," he said. 

On the possibility of flights between the UK and Europe being disrupted in the new year, Tanzer said "traveller confidence would be eroded still further". 

"People are wanting to book way beyond that, and if they are not sure that the flights will fly that will be just another deterrent for making them pause before they book." 

The ABTA chief said the pandemic had sparked a "cardiac arrest" for the travel industry, noting that 20 ABTA members have failed since March and that many travel agents were still dealing with a "tsunami of refund requests" at a time when new bookings were slow. 

He urged Shapps to "go into bat for the sector".  "We haven’t seen the evidence of what he is doing for this part of the economy,” he said. 

Striking a positive note Tanzer noted that ABTA research showed there is a big pent-up demand for travel in 2021, with people likely to spend more on their holidays than previously. 

"What gives me confidence is that the appetite for travel is still there. We will get through these barriers and confidence will return. We will come back stronger having learnt a lot of lessons - on how to deal with a pandemic...and having looked at the regulations governing our industry.  We will pick up business very quickly once we are through this," he said. 


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