The human cost of the government’s policies on small travel businesses fighting for survival was laid bare by an agent in an emotional webcast interview.

Kate Harris, director of Inspired Travel in Burbage, shed tears as she described the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on her business and how it had left her applying for jobs stacking shelves.

Harris explained how her agency had spent £10,000 of its £50,000 bounce back loan having never taken on debt in 20 years in business, and was in danger of losing its sole employee.

She said: “When this started, I thought we’d be back up and running by August. Then we thought it would be October, then I decided to look forward to March.”

Harris said she would not use the chancellor’s Job Support Scheme as she couldn’t justify the cost and was instead paying her staff member minimum wage for reduced hours and was behind on VAT and corporation tax bills.

Despite the extension of the repayment terms announced last week, Harris said: “It’s still a loan. You have to pay it back. It comes off our bottom line. I had thought, ‘if we can make it through without any debt, if we can mothball, then we know we have the profit sitting waiting there in commissions’. But I already owe £10,000.”

Harris said the jobs scheme was “delaying the inevitable” and feared her employee would move on as the business couldn’t afford to pay the required share of the salary for the hours in return.

If so, Harris predicted she would “let customers down” when pent-up demand is eventually released, and fears they will “clear off and book elsewhere” as a result.

Harris recalled how she was a “drive-by mother” on the school run among the sacrifices she made to build her business.

“I now wonder what I did all that for,” she said, adding that she had “no idea where to start” when recently writing a CV. She added: “I did a Zoom interview for a job with two people who are younger than my 27-year-old son. I’m answering questions like a manager when I’m applying to stack shelves.

“I never wanted to do that [but] this has been my life and I will do whatever it takes to save my business.”

“I don’t want to be the moaner, but when people say ‘look on the bright side’ I think if the choice was between having Covid or a roof over my head I’d pick Covid every day because without my job, without this shop to come to I don’t know what I’d do anymore.”

Julia Lo Bue-Said, chief executive of the Advantage Travel Partnership – who was also on the webcast – praised Harris’ attitude which she said “shows her strength”.

Giles Hawke, chief executive of Cosmos and Avalon Waterways pointed out to Harris that the situation was “through no fault of your own”, adding: “This is what’s so galling for business owners, and people employed in travel. This is something completely external that has been thrown at people and everyone’s having to deal with it in different ways.”