Restarting travel presents multiple challenges, argues Ken McLeod

One of the dictionary definitions of the word ‘balance’ is to “put something in a steady position so that it does not fall or fail”.

As the travel sections of the Sunday newspapers grow larger on the back of a successful vaccination programme, there is optimism that travel is back on the agenda.

The real challenge we face lies in the balancing act between the desire to travel and the ability to combat and contain the pandemic.

Just because many people will have had the vaccine, does not mean we are going to be allowed to travel or, indeed, have countries accept us.

Travel from the UK at the moment has been branded illegal by the government, a term I never thought I would hear in my lifetime, although it seems there are still passengers travelling to and from the UK.

The travel industry has been in the most challenging position of any business sector. We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

We feel guilty about pushing for overseas travel to open up against a backdrop of high infection rates, while desperate to ensure our businesses remain viable. Thousands upon thousands of people rely on travel as a job, a career or lifestyle, not just in the UK but around the world.

However, the priority of almost all countries is the health of its citizens and being able to balance that against the health of the economy is a fine line indeed.

The optimists in the trade have been looking for a restart in spring, whilst those who have been let down time and again by the changing rules and regulations are now guessing it may be late summer before we see some potential for travel.

So how optimistic should we be, given the government roadmap due today (February 22), when some health experts are suggesting we need to get below 1,000 infections a day before we can reduce lockdown measures?

The UK vaccination programme is currently one of the most successful in the world, so it’s easy to think its success will open up travel, if relatively slowly. However, hotel quarantine effectively kills any ambition most people would have for a holiday overseas in the immediate future.

And when we eventually do have the option to fly, possible destinations may not be so anxious to receive us to protect their own populations, especially if they have not progressed their vaccine roll-out as far as we have and given the repercussions that one of the vaccines may not be as effective against some of the variants.

What about those who cannot, or indeed will not, have a vaccination? Are they to be denied travel, which is possibly unlawful?

It may be OK for individual companies like Saga to impose conditions, but the human rights brigade would have a field day if this was widespread.

The introduction of a vaccination certificate seems a sensible solution to allow citizens to travel. Despite the government confirming there are no plans for a universal vaccination certificate, eight companies are being funded to create a digital solution for travellers and key workers.

So should we be optimistic that this will provide the answers? Having spent £10 billion on Test and Trace, the government is giving these companies £500,000 funding between them, so don’t hold your breath.

In the meantime, a suggestion that prospective travellers should obtain confirmation of having had a vaccination from their doctor seems a recipe for chaos.

The current vaccination card provided to some patients is never going to offer the necessary comfort to airlines, hotels and border control. Doctors have enough to do anyway with the vaccine roll-out.

Then there is the question of how long a ‘proof of vaccination’ certificate would last, and how many countries would accept it, especially if each country started issuing ‘proof’ by different methods. Having no standard method by which we can give comfort to fellow passengers or our destination hosts means summer could be a long way off.

Airlines, tour operators and travel agents desperately need to be able to start selling again to survive, but we need to get it right and avoid the possibility of a future shutdown because we were too anxious to get people on aircraft or cruise ships.

Achieving that balance requires a great deal of thought and co-operation between the travel trade and the government. Unfortunately, it’s not a likely scenario given our track record.

Ken McLeod is former president of the Scottish Passenger Agents Association (SPAA) and director of industry affairs at the Advantage Travel Partnership