The latest flip-flop on travel restrictions, dictating that anyone – British resident or tourist – who enters this country from 4am tomorrow onwards must take a test two days before arrival, is another shattering blow to my industry.
It’s a pointless over-reaction as all the early evidence suggests that Omicron is much less likely to cause death or illness serious enough to warrant hospital treatment.
And although Omicron was first identified in South Africa, it might have been circulating unseen in Britain for weeks. A cluster of cases has been logged in Scotland, and it is now being found all over the UK.
It’s a pointless over-reaction as all the early evidence suggests that Omicron is much less likely to cause death or illness serious enough to warrant hospital treatment
A survey of my 1,000 staff shows that just one person has caught Covid abroad, while more than 200 have contracted it in this country. Of course, I’m not advocating Covid tests on the railways, I’m just trying to highlight the uselessness and sheer unfairness of the new rules.
And though my business and my customers have suffered bitterly throughout the pandemic, I don’t want special treatment.
I’m simply echoing Professor Mark Woolhouse, a member of the Government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, who says the travel restrictions have come too late to make any ‘material difference’.
And yet they will have devastating long-term consequences for the travel business. Every snap decision, every change of direction causes more uncertainty. And for travel companies, uncertainty is the worst possible news.
Most people want to plan their holidays well in advance – traditionally, families start to think about their summer breaks at Christmas time. Even the relatively footloose tend to book their flights several months ahead.
Kneejerk rules introduced in a futile bid to control Omicron this week are going to have their real impact in the summer – because that’s when people will be missing out on travel that they are disinclined to book now.
Almost two years of simmering panic has damaged our confidence. Friends who run restaurants tell me that some customers are becoming wary of eating out at all: they book a table, then lose their nerve and don’t turn up.
We are becoming a country so cowed by slogans about quarantine and struggling hospitals that we are risk-averse. I served 14 years in the Army, eight of them in special forces, and I have been in business for more than half a century, so I believe I know a thing or two about handling risk.
That policy has cost Trailfinders £80million in 22 months, about a quarter of our total cash reserves. And as I own the company, that’s my own £80million
Risk has to be judged and managed. From the beginning of the Covid crisis in March 2020, my company has done everything possible to instil confidence in travel by minimising the risks.
We have adopted a policy of immediate refunds, with no questions asked and no 14-day delays, so that if holidays have to be cancelled our customers suffer no financial penalties. We can’t prevent the disruption and the disappointment, but we can at least ensure they are not out of pocket.
That policy has cost Trailfinders £80million in 22 months, about a quarter of our total cash reserves. And as I own the company, that’s my own £80million.
This colossal expense has enabled us to keep all our shops and offices open, with no enforced redundancies. It puts us in a strong position to bounce back when the Covid crisis is finally over – and history tells us that all pandemics do end eventually. We will return to normality. But there is no doubt that the industry will be scarred indefinitely.
The airlines’ fleets, for instance, have decreased by between 20 and 25 per cent, and large numbers of aircrew have seen their qualifications lapse. They can’t just get back on a plane and start flying tomorrow.
My staff want nothing more than to see the world flying again. To my great pleasure and pride, they couldn’t wait to stop working from home and get back to our shops and offices when the rules changed. That’s hardly surprising.
There is something about the camaraderie offered by an office environment that makes it far preferable to the isolation of operating from your kitchen table. Indeed, working at Trailfinders appears to be better for romance than going on Tinder.
So far, I’ve counted 146 marriages between my employees. No wonder they were so eager to return.
It is unacceptable to punish the travel industry every time the pandemic takes a new twist. Hindsight shows us that all the previous international restrictions did next to nothing in slowing the spread of Covid.
Millions of jobs rely on this business. Holidays are crucial for everyone. We have to bring some sort of sanity to bear on these maddening rules.