Maintaining public health is key, but a proper assessment of the impact of restrictions is essential, says ATD Travel Services’ Oliver Brendon

Arguments are raging in the debate about the lockdown, social-distancing and travel restrictions.  I can see both sides.

On the one hand, loosening the current restrictions seems premature while incremental death rates are so high, health services are buckling under the pressure and the risks to vulnerable groups remain.  And to loosen before there is more evidence on whether the virus can be transmitted after someone has had the vaccine, on how long the vaccine lasts and on how effective it is against new strains of Covid would also seem irresponsible.

Unfortunately for the travel industry, it seems likely that opening of overseas travel last summer – while very welcome – contributed to the current wave of infections.  Consequently, travel now seems to be the new victim of government policy.

On the other hand, the damage that lockdowns cause will be much more far-reaching than is apparent from the daily headlines.  The true cost of demoralisation, missed cancer treatments, heart disease, lost education, evictions, tax rises, redundancies, higher debt, fewer opportunities, reduced charity donations and mental illness is not being logged in the same meticulous way that infection rates and deaths are.

Strict and, indeed, stricter lockdown policies are generally popular with voters so there is a risk that they will continue longer than is necessary.  The current restrictions would be less popular, I’m sure, if the government were to undertake and publish a cost-benefit analysis of lockdowns.  They seem unable or unwilling to do that.

Ministers need to take stock of the situation themselves and to be much more measured in their language.  The outbound travel industry contributes over £28 billion to the UK’s GDP (1.8% of the total) and directly supports over 200,000 British jobs. The economic benefit to destination countries is of course enormous too.

Yet Priti Patel launched a campaign announcing that ‘going on holiday is illegal’ and Dominic Raab advised people not to book a summer holiday.  Where is the cost-benefit analysis that supports these reckless statements?  What do they achieve compared to the damage they do to business and the travel industry?  Where is the evidence that they have any positive affect at all?

The government should not attempt to create the illusion that they are in control of a very unpredictable situation.

They need to make it clear that eliminating all risk from Covid is going to be impossible.  That social contact and travel is essential for humanity.  That at some point, the benefits of loosening restrictions – for the sake of society, the economy and the mental health of the nation – will outweigh the risks.  That we will need to adapt and learn how to live and travel with this disease still in existence.  That without a roadmap out of the current restrictions, there is a real risk that the remedy becomes worse than the disease.

My fear is that the government’s focus is more on opinion polls than what is of real benefit to society.  That approach does not bode well for the travel industry.  The policies of protectionism, tough lockdowns, ever-stricter border controls and ‘winning’ the vaccine race against the EU are all popular but do little to help the outlook for travel companies.

Without specific financial support or a more objective approach from governments, our industry and the people who work in it will suffer unnecessarily.