Mark Palmer

Britain’s travel ban brings risks of its own

Britain’s travel ban brings risks of its own
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No one knows for sure how many cars are on the road without insurance. The Motor Insurers Bureau puts it as high as one million, and a good number of these won’t have a valid MOT either. Come to think of it, many such uninsured cars without MOTs are likely to be in the hands of drivers who don’t even have licences.

And yet it’s never suggested that only those who have a ‘reasonable excuse’ to drive should be allowed to do so, just in case of encounters with revved-up lawbreakers. We know there’s a risk — but we don’t close down all the roads in the country. We get on with our lives. But when it comes to international travel 12 months on from the start of this grisly pandemic, we are not allowed to get on with our lives. Instead, hypothetical risk is now destroying one of Britain’s biggest and most important industries, creating a financial black hole from which it will take years to recover. And for some, of course, there will be no recovery.

Since March last year, the economy has lost up to £13 billion due to the collapse in domestic and foreign tourism, a level of haemorrhaging that could have been avoided. Rather than adopting a coordinated government strategy on future travel, there has been scare-mongering, misinformation and, as of this week, threats of £5,000 fines for anyone trying to board a flight without an official stamp of approval.

What we now know is that on Monday — a bank holiday — the Prime Minister is due to tell us whether we can even bank on a holiday overseas this summer. This announcement has been brought forwards by a week, which could be good news but, equally, might mean the extension of a vague and dangerous wait-and-see policy.

It was Transport Secretary Grant Shapps who went on the airwaves in February and said people could not ‘legally’ book a holiday. This untruth resulted in thousands of cancellations and pushed travel companies and tour operators closer to the cliff edge, just as they were trying to refund customers for cancelled holidays last year with the help of deposits for bookings this year. ‘The impression we get is that the government thinks that many small companies are expendable and easily replaceable,’ says Huw Beaugié, founder of villa company The Thinking Traveller. What Shapps should have said — and what Boris Johnson needs to emphasise next week — is that it’s fine to book a holiday as long as you’ve studied the terms and conditions, and that if you book a package (as defined by flight and accommodation bought together) that is cancelled by the travel operator, you will be due a refund by law within 14 days of cancellation.

There was a lot of talk about ‘global Britain’ during the run-up to Brexit, but, despite Shapps’s grandly named Global Travel Taskforce, which is supposed to ‘map out a safe return to international travel’, our wings have been clipped. At some point (and now would help), we must ‘accentuate the positive’, as those business self-help books put it. Most people over the age of 50 have had one jab and several million have had two; the infrastructure for testing at airports such as Heathrow and Gatwick is in place; rapid lateral flow tests have proved successful and are coming down in price (now around £30).

Although we’ve left the EU, the EU can’t get enough of us. Our stock as tourists has never been higher and it’s time to take advantage of this. The UK’s vaccination programme is the envy of Europe, which is why Greece, Turkey, Spain, Portugal and Cyprus are in competition to see how wide they can open the door to us this summer. Turkey has even said we might not need proof of a vaccination or a negative test result before flopping on a Bodrum beach. And given that America’s inoculation programme is now just as good as ours, there’s no reason why we can’t soon plan holidays there.

Of course, some form of traffic light system — with or without vaccination certificates — should be in place to allow travel from 17 May and, crucially, this must result in no requirement to self-isolate when returning from a country on the green list.

Mike Gooley, the chairman of Trailfinders — which has refunded more than £220 million over the past 12 months — tells me that he has no recollection of ever being asked a question by those presiding over his industry in Whitehall. Perhaps that’s because he would give them a hard time if they did. After all, in his submission to the Department for Transport last week, Gooley did not pull his punches. ‘Obfuscation and pettifoggery must not stand in the way of a return to liberty,’ he said. ‘Zero risk is a fool’s mission that can only result in inertia.