THERE had been high hopes among the likes of airlines, holiday companies, travel agents and airports as well as consumers that last week’s review of destinations on the UK’s overseas travel “green list” would herald noteworthy change.

In the end, it did but, unfortunately for the hard-pressed international travel sector and for people desperate to go abroad on holiday, the change was for the worse, not the better.

There had been talk of some Greek and Spanish islands and Malta making their way on to the green list, and generally hopes of meaningful positive movement, with the peak summer season now almost upon us.

However, the news that came from the UK Government last week on its green, amber and red lists wrongfooted many people, including some experts.

It was announced that Portugal, a mainstream summer holiday destination to have made it on to the green list, would be moved to amber.

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Many people had, of course, either booked Portugal already for the summer or were thinking seriously about it, as they dreamed of going overseas again.

Portugal had thus seemed to offer a glimpse of better times ahead for those operating in the international travel sector in the UK, whether as tour companies, agents, airlines or airports.

It had also seemed, even amid the huge bureaucracy and expense of testing put in place for green-list destinations by the UK Government, to offer hope of an opening up of travel to at least some other major holiday destinations in Europe from early summer.

In all deliberations on international travel, we cannot lose sight of the crucial point that saving lives must remain the priority. We must also bear in mind the importance of not undoing what has been achieved through the grimly miserable lockdown measures required to save many thousands of lives.

However, rapid vaccine roll-out in the UK, elsewhere in Europe and in other countries around the world has understandably fuelled hopes in recent months that a holiday overseas from Britain might be possible this summer.

And increasingly, as we hopefully get through the worst of this pandemic, attention will naturally and rightly turn to how to enable safely people’s freedoms to once again do the things they like.

For some people, that might be going for a pint down the road, which is now possible again.

For others, it will be going abroad on holiday. Everyone should bear in mind that we have all given up much for the greater good, and people should be aware that others will have different priorities to them as everybody attempts, hopefully in a far less hazardous environment given vaccinations, to get back to the leisure pursuits they enjoy.

The “new normal” is a dismal concept. And it should certainly not involve passing some negative judgment on those who wish to go abroad on holiday, where it is safe, however passionate some members of the UK Government might be about a great British summer of staycations.

Right now, of course, the ability of people to go overseas remains, understandably, inextricably linked to health considerations. However, it is important as things progress that the international travel sector is not in any way deprioritised, for reasons other than science. This is not just about the albeit crucial issue of rights of individuals but also about the huge numbers of people employed in the international travel sector, the contribution this makes to the economy, and the importance of preserving capacity for the future.

In terms of employment and the economic contribution and capacity of this key sector, it is to be hoped Rishi Sunak does not view his Government’s big calls on the green list, and its emphasis that people should not holiday in amber destinations, as unrelated to big decisions he faces. Last week’s announcement looked like yet another sign that further furlough support will be required beyond the Chancellor’s planned September end date for his coronavirus job retention scheme.

Going abroad this summer never looked like an easy decision, even for those unenamoured with the prospect of a high-priced staycation and perhaps looking for a break from the UK’s divisive politics. However, the decision appears even more difficult right now, following last week’s surprises.

The announcement on Portugal was a reminder of the outbreaks of chaos through parts of last summer as countries were taken off the UK’s exemption list at short notice, fuelling a scramble to return in time to avoid quarantine. At that stage, Scotland was tailoring its own policies, which were on the whole slightly more cautious than those from the UK Government.

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Given the UK Government’s green list this year is only being reviewed every three weeks, many will have been disappointed that none of the Greek or Spanish island holiday destinations made it on last week.

It is also worth emphasising that some places on the UK’s green list, such as Commonwealth members Australia and Singapore, are not open to people from Britain wishing to go there on holiday.

The green list continues to be heavy on Commonwealth territories, while the EU countries whose addition would make a meaningful difference in terms of travel prospects are conspicuous by their absence, particularly with Portugal being moved.

The strong reaction from the travel sector to last week’s announcement from the UK Government on the green list was entirely understandable.

EasyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren described the news as a “huge blow”. Andrew Flintham, managing director of package holiday giant TUI in the UK, characterised the Government review as “another step back”.

Jacqueline Dobson, president of Barrhead Travel, said last week that the UK Government announcement “further compounds the damage that has already been inflicted on the travel industry”.

She added: “It’s disappointing for the industry and it will be a hammer blow to the thousands of travellers who haven’t seen family or loved ones for months on end and those holidaymakers who are already abroad.

“At the drop of a hat, the Government has determined that these changes are required without meaningful consultation with the industry and without due consideration for the consequences. We have long been at the stage where a genuine, tangible route map out of this crisis is required. Sadly, it appears that this is not forthcoming and instead we hurtle from one disastrous announcement to another.”

Ms Dobson, while emphasising an awareness that “public health has to come first”, hit the nail on the head with her observation that “the travel industry needs to see a clear roadmap to recovery or risk further permanent damage”.

She also pointed out, rightly, that it was “simply unsustainable to continue lurching from one contradictory announcement to the other without meaningful consultation with the industry beforehand”.

Ms Dobson said: “Across the world, international travel is beginning to safely restart and, without imminent timelines in place for the UK, we risk falling well behind our global counterparts.

“There are thousands of travellers either in the UK, or worse, abroad, who have had their plans upended. Both the industry and travellers were expecting, at the very least, the promised green watchlist tier which would have made for a softer transition and helped to keep confidence afloat for travel.”

The importance of confidence in this context, and in so many others right now, cannot be overestimated.

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The attempts to reopen international leisure travel are clearly occurring against a difficult and fast-developing backdrop but what seems clear is that this could be handled much, much better by the UK Government. The international travel sector is being told the furlough scheme will end in September yet here we are in June and it seems like one step forward, two steps back on reopening. More information from the Government, and a detailed roadmap, is required, now. There are reports of disagreements on international travel among Boris Johnson’s Cabinet, which would present another challenge to smooth reopening and communication. However, if the Government thinks it likely the current pattern of setbacks is going to continue through summer, based on its assessment of public health requirements, it must formulate plans for proper additional support for the sector, including but not limited to extension of the furlough scheme.

One of the big problems has appeared to be very poor communication from the UK Government, which is leading what is currently a four-nations approach to overseas travel. It set May 17 as the date for the restart of non-essential travel. Many were doubtful this was possible as this date approached, but the Government ploughed ahead.

We had belated clarity amid a little bit of confusion that the Government view for an amber-list country was that people should not go there on holiday – many had thought this would be fine as long as they quarantined on return.

Mainstream travel destinations were conspicuous by their absence on the initial green list, although Portugal and Iceland made it on. And now Portugal has been removed, with no additions and none even signalled. It is difficult to imagine how the UK Government’s announcement last week could have done anything other than further undermine the already fragile confidence of consumers thinking about going abroad and the international travel sector alike.

The UK Government must right now be focused on bolstering, not damaging, business and consumer confidence. It really needs to up its game in a very big way, and fast, on the international travel front.