With the decision to impose a mandatory 14-day quarantine for almost everyone arriving in the UK by air, travel industry insiders say the government has signed the death warrant for hundreds of holiday firms.
Two months after the World Health Organisation announced that coronavirus had become a global pandemic, the prime minister has announced that quarantine for new arrivals by air.
Passengers arriving by air from anywhere abroad apart from the Republic of Ireland will be presumed to be carrying coronavirus and will be required to self-isolate in a private dwelling for two weeks.
Boris Johnson said the order was necessary to prevent a second spike in coronavirus cases – though the World Health Organisation advises that quarantine is a useful measure only in the earlier stages of virus transmission.
He said: “To prevent re-infection from abroad, I am serving notice that it will soon be the time – with transmission significantly lower – to impose quarantine on people coming into this country by air.”
Because it does not apply to rail or ferry passengers, it will be easy for individual travellers to the UK to circumvent. They will need only travel to Paris, Brussels or one of the Channel ports and board a train or ferry.
The policy is likely to take effect at the end of the month. Even though it had been widely trailed, the announcement sent shock-waves through businesses already reeling from a near-total shutdown of the travel industry.
Airlines and travel firms such as Tui and Jet2 Holidays had been planning for “Project Lift-off”: gradually re-starting operations from June onwards, with a wide range of flights in July and something close to a full programme in August – the peak month for trips, when they can command high prices.
But the average package holidaymaker will be unable or unwilling to contemplate adding 14 days of stringent self-isolation to their planned trip.
Under the Package Travel Regulations, they may be entitled to cancel without penalty – at which point they can insist a full cash refund from their tour operator.
The rules governing holiday contracts were never designed for these circumstances, and it is possible that there may be a legal clarification to the effect that holidays can go ahead and anyone who chooses to cancel will lose some or all of their money.
This would place tour operators in the invidious and extremely unpopular position of running holidays with a high number of no-shows, at a time when they were highly unlikely to sell the vast amount of capacity still unsold. Therefore they are likely to cancel millions of trips on top of the many already axed.
To make matters worse, the government’s refusal to say when or how quarantine will end will deter consumers from committing to future bookings, stifling sales that had begun to build.
With no cash coming in, and no prospect of a recovery before 2021, many long-established firms will have no alternative but to cease trading.
A senior travel industry figure said: “To introduce this measure at the very point when lockdown appears to be easing doesn’t seem rational.
“We’ve endured seven weeks of this, and just as we thought there was some measured way back to normality, we’re now worse than square one.
“It will worsen an already difficult situation for hundreds of travel firms, and write off many good businesses that would otherwise have been able to survive the summer.”
Holidaymakers who have booked a package with a defunct company will be able to get their money back under the Atol scheme, administered by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
Even though the Air Travel Trust fund was almost emptied by the failure of Thomas Cook in September 2019, the government is the ultimate guarantor – so the taxpayer is likely to be responsible for some of the refunds.
Airlines that are already burning millions of pounds of cash every day now see the prospect of new bookings receding into the autumn.
Tim Alderslade, chief executive of the industry body Airlines UK, said: “We all – including government – need to adapt to the new normal. But closing off air travel in this way is not the way to achieve this.
“Ministers are effectively telling people they can no longer travel for the foreseeable future and airlines will respond to that by grounding their operations.