Hays Travel took on government contracts to keep staff with no work to do during the Covid-19 crisis in employment, the agency has revealed.

Following national newspaper reports over the weekend, the UK’s largest independent agency chain said it had “proactively looked for other ways to keep everyone going”.

In a statement released in response to questions from Travel Weekly, it said: “Back in March, in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, we could see our industry facing crisis and we decided to be very proactive in trying to secure work for our people.

“We’ve tried everything in our power to protect the jobs of all of our staff.  We had 3,000 retail staff working from home throughout lockdown helping customers but others who had no work to do, so we were proactively looking for other ways we could keep everyone going.”

Hays Travel invited staff to come up with ideas for potential cost savings during the lockdown. The statement explained that one employee who previously worked at a ‘service centre’ before joining Hays had suggested that the agency could support that centre because it “didn’t have enough skilled staff”.

“Our member of staff responded that we had lots of skilled staff but no work,” the statement said. “They then contacted their manager in Hays Travel and suggested there might be something we could do together.”

The statement outlined that a conversation then took place between Hays Travel senior managers and the service centre, adding: “This was escalated, and there was then thorough due diligence to establish Hays Travel’s qualifications and robust processes relating to the work. Hays Travel complied with all the requirements of the due diligence and bid for the work through a formal competitive process.

“We don’t have contracts direct with government – we are one of a number of subcontractors working to two different government providers.”

Hays Travel would not confirm exactly which projects it had serviced, but Travel Weekly understands that it had fulfilled a number of Covid-related functions, including a ‘shielding’ helpline, NHS Track and Trace, and the Foreign Office’s repatriation programme at the beginning of the crisis.

Irene, under her maiden name of Lucas, is a former chief executive of South Tyneside and Sunderland City Council and has been a non-executive board member and chair of the Education Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) management board since 2019.

Responding to suggestions that Hays Travel might have been given government contracts for the Covid-19 response, at least partly because of Irene’s other work for the government, the statement insisted that neither Irene Hays nor Hays Travel had any influence in the awarding of government contracts in the Department for Education or any other department in Whitehall.

“There is nothing at all to suggest any impropriety of any sort,” it said.

Hays Travel explained that training was provided, as required by the client, by Hays Travel’s training academy, which has an Ofsted rating of ‘good’, to enable the projects to start as quickly as possible.

Travel Weekly understands all work carried out by Hays Travel did not require any medical expertise or training.

The statement continued: “Any applications from additional staff were taken from people who were known to our employees and therefore would have some understanding of our work ethos. They were directed to our website to apply and were vetted and selected through the normal recruitment processes. Those who were successful undertook the appropriate training programme.”

It is understood that the non-travel work taken on by Hays Travel was significant in giving its staff something to do during the crisis when holiday bookings dried up.

But it was not enough to avoid cuts completely as Hays Travel announced on August 3 that it had entered into consultation with 878 foreign exchange and trainee travel consultant staff whose roles are at risk of redundancy – the first time the agency has made job cuts of more than 10 in its 40-year history.

The statement described this as “devastating”, but said it was still “forging ahead with its two-year business plan”.

“We have a strong balance sheet and significant bookings for holidays for 2021. Our 600 shops, contact centres and homeworking division remain operating at full capacity and we are still recruiting for our new venture in Scotland – a head office for Hays Travel Operating Ltd – and for 700 apprentices this year,” the statement confirmed.

It concluded: “Whilst we know there will be many challenges ahead we are continuing to make sure we are ready to meet the huge latent demand for holidays and to be able to play our part in making sure we still have a viable travel industry.”

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