COVID-19 Updates

Coronavirus update 7th May 2020

It is now over six weeks since the UK population was placed in lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak, with significant limitations on working, socialising, and travelling. We’ve rounded up the main news stories in the UK and across the travel industry right now to keep you in the loop.

 

The UK’s current status

Since 23rd March 2020, restrictions on personal movement have been placed on the UK’s public. These restrictions will be in place until at least 10th May and can be summarised as follows:

  • People must work from home where possible and should only leave the house for essentials such as food shopping, health reasons or daily exercise.
  • When out in public, people must always stay two metres away from each other.
  • People must wash their hands regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and avoid touching their face.
  • Anyone with symptoms of coronavirus, or living with a person with symptoms, must self-isolate.
  • Those deemed as high risk (e.g. they have an underlying health condition) have been asked to self-isolate for at least 12 weeks.

As of 7th May 2020, there have been 201,101 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK and, sadly, 30,076 people have died as a result.

The UK has now passed the peak of the virus, but the government has yet to release lockdown measures due to the fear of a second peak. It is expected that the UK government will outline a gradual easing of lockdown this weekend (10th May). Other countries across Europe have started to gradually ease measures, seeing the population slowly return to work and school, along with the re-opening of certain business such as hairdressers.

The UK’s Chief Medical Officer has warned that some form of social distancing will be in place until a vaccine or successful medical treatment is found. The UK has joined the international effort to produce a vaccine and the University of Oxford has already started human trials.

 

The UK economy

With social distancing measures in place, much of the UK’s workforce is unable to work and many businesses are struggling as consumers stop spending. To help keep the UK economy afloat, the government introduced a number of measures such as business loans, financial support for the self-employed and relaxing mortgage and loan repayments. A popular initiative has been the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, allowing companies to furlough staff (stopping them from working temporarily) while the government pays 80% of their salary, up to £2,500 a month. An estimated 6.3 million Britons have been furloughed, which is around a quarter of the workforce.

There is hope that the government’s initiatives will allow the economy to recover when lockdown is lifted. However, economists are warning that the challenges of the coronavirus outbreak will cause a large economic downturn and it could take three years to recover.

 

Impact on the travel industry

The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has advised against all but essential international travel indefinitely with no indication of when this advice will be relaxed. This matches the advice of countries worldwide, making it extremely difficult to know when travel will be possible again. This is proving to be an exceptionally difficult time for the travel industry, with uncertainty making it impossible to accurately plan for the future.

 

Legal obligations

Tour operators, travel agents and airlines are legally required to refund any customer who has had to cancel their trip due to FCO advice within 14 days of cancellation. This has put the UK travel industry under a lot of financial pressure, and many companies have offered customers vouchers rather than refunds. Unfortunately, this has created dissatisfaction among many consumers, and consumer magazine Which? has led the fight for tour operators and airlines to be fair and refund passengers. Regulators are taking a more relaxed approach to package travel refunds, but there is still some ambiguity about whether compensating with vouchers is acceptable and if consumers are financially protected with a voucher.

There is an ongoing debate in the trade press about the best way to compensate passengers as both travel companies and passengers are trying to protect their own finances. Companies that do not treat customers fairly and transparently now are likely to see damage to their reputation in the long run.

 

Air travel

With international travel restrictions in place, air travel has suffered. Recently, several airlines have announced major staff cuts, including British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. In the UK, this has put the future of Gatwick Airport at risk.

This is undoubtedly an extremely challenging time for airlines. However, there are some success stories. Wizz Air has recently re-started many European flights and has even announced new flight routes. With marketing focused on the safety of passengers, the airline is using this opportunity to place itself as a market leader when travel is possible again.

Airlines and airports will be expected to put extra safety precautions in place when flights increase again. Heathrow will begin trialling health screening measures in May and many airlines require passengers to wear face masks.

 

Looking to the future

Sadly, there is mounting evidence that international travel is unlikely to return for many months. Tour operators are cancelling summer departures due to uncertainty around when borders will re-open. Argentina has banned flight sales to, from or within the country until September, and New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has warned that it will be a long time until the country’s borders open to international travellers. Undoubtedly, these restrictions will harm the travel industry. However, restrictions in the short term may protect the long-term health of countries’ populations, putting them in a better position to welcome tourists in the coming years.

One thing is clear, though: people want to travel and will do so when able. There are concerns about other factors that may stop holidaymakers from travelling again, such as lack of money and difficulties acquiring travel insurance. However, with many Brits not spending as much as usual in lockdown, there’s evidence to suggest that there will be enough disposable income to fuel the travel industry in the coming years. With travellers now aware of how travel plans can easily go wrong, there is evidence that more holidaymakers will rely on tour operators and travel agents in the future. There are plenty of signs that tour operators and travel agents will be needed by many when travel becomes possible again.

 

Responsible travel

With the impacts of coronavirus monopolising conversations about the future of travel, it’s important that the topics of sustainability, conservation and responsible travel do not get lost. One positive to come out of reduced aviation activity is the environmental impact. With travel ground to a halt, this is a good time for companies to assess their practices going forward. As Fiona Jeffery says, “This is a unique moment in time to take a pause, right the wrongs, and move away from viewing responsible travel as a ‘nice to do’.

The pause on travel has put spotlight on the fact that many organisations depend on income from visitors to fund conservation projects. The relationship between humans and wildlife is coming under scrutiny as evidence mounts that coronavirus began at a wet market in Wuhan. When travel re-starts, it is vital that conservation of wildlife, along with supporting local communities and reducing environmental damage, is a key focus.

 

Our opinion

Uncertainty is still hanging over the travel industry; it is not yet known when borders will reopen or what precautions will be in place once travel is possible again. However, there is a strong desire from much of the UK population to travel and, one day, the industry will flourish again.

There’s no hiding from the fact that this is an exceptionally difficult time for the industry, and millions have been negatively affected. However, I strongly believe we need to find the positives wherever we can. As with so many aspects life, the coronavirus crisis has offered a rare opportunity to take a step back from normality and assess what is important and what could change going forward. As an industry, it’s vital that we take this chance to assess best practices when it comes to sustainable and responsible travel.

Travel will not be the same again but, in some ways, perhaps this is not a bad thing. If flight prices increase and extra hygiene and safety measures are needed to travel, then holidaymakers will move to taking fewer, more special trips, ensuring they make the most of every opportunity. Once-in-a-lifetime trips often focus around wildlife, whether it’s a Galapagos cruise or African safari, and the income from visitors can be used to fund conservation projects which are badly needed.

In the past few years, overtourism has become a significant concern. Although it will take some time to return to 2019’s visitor numbers, we, as an industry, can use this opportunity to ensure that travel is reintroduced in a responsible way, supporting communities worldwide and preventing the destruction of the world’s most treasured sites.

Travel will return – that much I am sure of. Let’s work together and use this opportunity to ensure that it returns in a way that will positively impact the planet for many years to come.

Byron Shirto

Managing Director

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