During the coronavirus pandemic, Britain has been something of an outlier in Europe — and not in a good way. As travel reopens on the continent, the travel industry is loudly questioning the logic of its quarantine and proposing a better way.
The reopening strategy laid out by the UK government has raised everything from eyebrows to ire as the summer season nears.
As of June 8, all entrants to the UK are subject to a 14-day quarantine. However, the resources available to enforce this rule have been called insufficient, and the logic of introducing such a hardcore rule this late in the pandemic is a major point of contention.
As a result, the tourism and aviation industries are lobbying hard against the quarantine, including launching a legal challenge and backing the alternative idea of travel corridors. They argue the quarantine will act as a deterrent on future bookings that will stymie any hope of a recovery in the coming months.
“The quarantine is a considerable frustration and we haven’t seen the science behind it — we’re not sure that there is actually strong science behind it,” Kurt Janson, head of Tourism Alliance, an umbrella trade association for the tourism sector in the UK, said. “It’s a very blunt instrument. For example New Zealand has this week gone Covid-free. So why do people from New Zealand have to go through two weeks of quarantining to come to the UK? This doesn’t send a good message out to overseas it tells everyone that we’re closed.”
This is especially true if one looks at the UK’s always-troubled relationship to Europe. Perhaps the one potential bright spot in the dismal global travel picture this year may be the potential for some semblance of a summer season for holiday-hungry Europeans. The Schengen area looks set to start opening up in early July, barring any major reversal of infection trends.
But the likes of Janson worry that the UK’s policy leaves it out of this potential for recovery. Given the perception of how the UK has handled the crisis relative to Europe, in many ways the UK would be lucky if Europeans are still willing to visit. Adding a quarantine on top of that certainly doesn’t sweeten that bitter pill.
“Other countries are looking at how they reopen their tourism businesses and putting processes in place to allow for people to travel from one country to another, but we’re at the stage of preventing that happening while others are looking at how to allow it to happen,” Janson said. “So we’re … sending a very different message to everyone … We’re out of step with what what other European countries are doing.”
The UK government has said it will reassess its quarantine policy on June 29. Patricia Yates, director of strategy and communication at VisitBritain, told Skift the industry hopes that either the policy will be scrapped entirely or be softened in the form of allowing travel corridors with low-risk countries. There have been rumors circulating all week that the government has indicated travel corridors will be in place beginning in July. (This is a government, keep in mind, that makes a habit of changing its mind.)
In addition to that, the foreign office would have to reverse its current indefinite restriction on non-essential overseas travel in order to create some potential for outbound summer trips. Yates said should this happen, she feels confident enough European countries would be willing to create corridors with the UK given the importance of the British source market
“Other countries have said they’d like to. For many other destinations, British people are such a great travelers and are a mainstay of their industry so that actually they are keen to have Brits travel there.”
Tim Fairhurst, secretary general of the European Tourism Association, said that while the “optics [of the quarantine] are odd because of the UK’s epidemiological status compared to the rest of Europe,” he believes the importance of the British traveler to many European destinations may mean there’s a willingness to find a way forward if travel corridors become the solution.
“Take a destination like Portugal. Portugal just can’t survive on Portuguese demand only,” Fairhurst said. “Therefore you look really hard at what are the rational choices out there to make in order to increase the chances of getting at least some business in 2020. Portugal was 97 percent down in April. The UK is very important [to them]. Obviously there are things to work out in terms of how, but somehow or another we’ve got to get to an acceptable risk level that feels proportionate.”
Even if Britons are allowed to travel soon, the question of willingness comes into play. Yates says consumer sentiment surveys find relatively soft demand, with just 22 percent reporting they feel very or fairly confident about taking a holiday between now and September. There is also concern from domestic destinations that an influx of staycationing British visitors will bring an influx of infections.
Yates says VisitBritain has a big job in convincing domestic travelers that the tourism industry will be Covid-ready when some of the hospitality industry in England is allowed to reopen on July 4. (Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are operating on their own timeline.) She also said Britons need to know that re-opening tourism can happen in a gradual, socially distanced way.
“We’re looking at [that confidence level] change over time as government restrictions lift, but then we’re making sure that we’re working with businesses and destinations to create a quality market,” Yates said. “We’re full scale on getting government guidelines and sensing that into guidelines by sector.” Yates added that VisitBritain will run an online training on top of those guidelines, and that there are plans for a ‘Good to Go’ physical logo that will “reinforce to customers that these businesses understand how to operate during Covid.”
Yates also said extending the summer season would be a crucial step to bolster earnings. The government is expected to decide on whether to add an October bank holiday in the coming weeks. There have also been calls from industry to relax the two meter distancing rule to one meter.
“I think it’s been incredibly challenging year,” Yates said, “There have been some life boats — the rent reviews, the furlough scheme — but this is going to get very crunchy as businesses look at their staff list, who are they going to bring back, how are they going to get cash flow for cleaning regimes, and how are they going to operate profitably,” Yates said. She added that some businesses will simply not be able to operate profitably at lowered capacity that allows for social distancing.
Asked whether she had any optimism about the months ahead: “We’re possibly at the worst — still shut, no money coming in — and there are really some battles to be done to encourage people to holiday, to come to Britain, to get people to have the confidence to book. And to extend the season as much as we can.”
Photo credit: Will London have any semblance of a summer season? Aron Van de Pol / Unsplash