Travel will only return to being a sustainable industry “when a vaccine arrives”, according to the boss of one of the UK’s largest independent agency consortia.

Gary Lewis, chief executive of The Travel Network Group said: “What we fundamentally know is the government simply do not want people to travel internationally. They just don’t want it to happen.”

Speaking on a Travel Weekly webcast, before Pfizer and BioNTech announced their progress on a vaccine on Monday, Lewis said: “Even if the testing says it’s safe, and even if the infection rates statistically aren’t [growing], it just needs one headline about some ‘Covid idiot coming back on an aeroplane from getting drunk in Greece’, and that makes the government look crazy for allowing that to happen when there are people dying in care homes.”

Lewis added: “That’s the reality of what we know; and we cannot control that. But we are absolutely right to keep shouting at government to get testing regimes in; to regionalise the risks; to get ourselves ready for when a vaccine does come in.

“But we’re not safe and I’ll have no certainty until a vaccine. We are only in control if we have a sustainable industry going forward. And we do not have a sustainable industry without a vaccine – it doesn’t matter how good the testing regime is. We go into lockdown, we reduce deaths; we come out of lockdown, they increase. It’s unsustainable.”

Lewis said travel agents needed to be fully aware of this and honest with their customers when selling holidays.

“Given these are the facts we’re all working with, we’re having conversations with our members advising then to be proactive and honest with their customers,” he said.

“We’re saying they need to remind their customers that they’re inquiring about holidays in the middle of a global pandemic and so there is huge disruption likely to happen.”

And he said such a strategy was paying off, and that agents has reported customers thanking them for warning them against short-term bookings to destinations such as the Canary Islands which would have ended up cancelled.

Lewis added: “We’re telling members who are putting all the risk on Atol holders, don’t assume your commission is your commission until your guest has departed. Because you’re only putting yourself into more debt. Don’t spend it because it’s not yours, and might not be because things are so uncertain.

“Just be honest with yourself and plan your business and your cashflows around that. The world is fundamentally different, and we only have a chance of a sustainable industry when a vaccine arrives.”