The travel industry has called for ministers to tear up the UK’s Covid traffic light and PCR testing rules as figures reveal their “devastating impact” on overseas flights and holiday bookings in peak season.
Bookings for holidays abroad this summer were down 83% on 2019, according to data from the Travel Association (ABTA), with half of travel companies reporting no increase in bookings compared with last summer, despite the vaccination programme.
ABTA said thousands of jobs in the sector were at risk, with seven in 10 companies planning to make redundancies once the furlough ends.
Heathrow and Manchester Airports Group (MAG), which both reported huge falls in summer traffic, joined the calls for a simplified two-tier system for international travel. The London hub airport was the busiest in Europe but is now ranked 10th after a 71% drop in August traffic compared with pre-pandemic levels. MAG’s passenger numbers across Manchester, London Stansted and East Midlands airports were down 68% on August 2019.
The health secretary, Sajid Javid, said at the weekend that he wanted to scrap PCR day two tests for fully vaccinated arrivals “as soon as I possibly can”, after reports that officials were working on plans to allow the change, potentially in time for half-term holiday bookings.
However, easyJet said it had yet to see any discernible impact of Javid’s announcement on bookings. A spokesperson said the airline would continue to argue for the scrapping of all tests for vaccinated travellers visiting low-risk countries.
The government is due to review the much-criticised traffic light system by 1 October, while the furlough scheme is due to finish at the end of this month.
Mark Tanzer, chief executive of ABTA, said the requirements had “choked off” the summer’s travel trade: “While our European neighbours have been travelling freely and safely, the British were subject to expensive measures which have stood in the way … The government needs to wake up to the damage its policies are doing to the UK travel industry and the impact they will have on the wider economic recovery.”
He said the dire summer season meant the furlough scheme needed to be extended for travel businesses beyond September.
Heathrow said the UK’s traffic light system was an outlier in Europe in terms of its restrictiveness, handing rivals a competitive advantage. Chief executive John Holland-Kaye said: “If ministers fail to take this opportunity to streamline the travel rules, then the UK will fall further behind as trade and tourists will increasingly bypass the UK.”
MAG cited government data showing that fewer than 30% of positive PCR test results were ever sequenced to identify variants. Its chief executive, Charlie Cornish, said the system was “confusing to customers and places needless barriers in the way of them booking travel. The impact that is having on our sector is clear.”