UK travel firms call for state help after Omicron hits turnover

Photograph: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Industry body warns that some operators won’t last the winter after return of strict Covid travel rules

    Travel firms have called on the government to provide urgent financial help as fresh Covid-19 restrictions come in to force on Tuesday, hitting holiday travel just before the peak booking period.

    Turnover has been at just 22% of normal levels for tour operators, according to figures from the travel association Abta.

    Hopes for recovery, lifted last month by the reopening of transatlantic travel and the removal of all destinations from the red list, have been dented by rules brought in since the emergence of the Omicron variant.

    Travellers must take a pre-departure test from Tuesday to leave the UK. The red list was extended to Nigeria on Monday, after South Africa and others 10 days ago, meaning that all returning citizens must enter mandatory hotel quarantine.

    Abta said the new restrictions could “tip companies over the edge”. The restrictions on South Africa have effectively ended holiday travel before the destination’s peak season, while additional testing and the reintroduction of PCR instead of lateral flow tests have dented consumer confidence.

    It warned that smaller businesses may find it difficult to survive after two lost summer seasons. Employment across the travel industry has halved since the beginning of the pandemic in March last year, according to Abta research. Booking volumes over summer and autumn this year are 28% of that period in 2019, and reported turnover for the last financial year averaged only 22% of pre-pandemic levels.

    The industry has called for the government to provide more support for firms, as well as capping the cost of PCR tests for travellers.

    Mark Tanzer, chief executive of Abta, said: “Public health must come first, but the government should be looking to soften the blow to travel companies by providing financial support in the shape of grants and the return of furlough for travel staff. We can’t go on like this with requirements changing but nothing to support those businesses worst affected.

    “Not only has there been an absence of any specific support for the sector, but many companies have either been excluded or refused access to the general grant funding – so it’s no wonder that many of our members feel totally abandoned by the government.”

    The TSSA union weighed in with calls for more help for the industry. Its general secretary, Manuel Cortes, said: “Travel companies are already saying that bookings are collapsing since the new restrictions were introduced last week – and they’ll become tougher from tomorrow.

    “The government must provide bespoke support for our travel sector, including a furlough scheme so that those employed in the sector don’t pay with their jobs for containing the spread of the Omicron variant.”

    The Department for Transport was approached for comment.

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