“I won’t be booking a summer holiday at this point, let’s put it that way.”
With one sentence and a chuckle, the transport secretary crushed the hopes of the UK travel industry for an early resumption in anything like normal business.
Grant Shapps was talking to Nick Robinson on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme about a possible resumption of activity when the UK’s current lockdown ends on 7 May.
Domestic tourism and international leisure travel has effectively ceased as a result of the lockdown measures and an indefinite Foreign Office warning against going abroad.
The travel industry had been hoping that, after losing all the business for the Easter holidays, tourism might begin to restart. The day after the current three-week lockdown ends, 8 May, is a bank holiday and the start of a three-day weekend.
But the transport secretary’s lack of confidence about his own travel plans suggest that the government has in mind a significantly longer spell of restrictions on travel.
A spokesperson for Abta, the travel industry association, said: “It was a thoughtless comment and not based on any facts about what we know today about the future of the pandemic, but it shows complete disregard for the UK travel industry, the hundreds of thousands of people it employs and the struggle it is facing in this current crisis.
“It would be better if the government focused on taking the necessary steps to support the sector rather than undermining confidence in it.”
Kane Pirie, a senior travel industry figure and founder of Vivid Travel, said of Mr Shapps’ lack of confidence: “That’s a surprising and unhelpful comment.
“I’m also surprised that no one asked Mr Shapps what he thought about the £2.5bn owed to consumers by travel firms after holidays were cancelled.”
Abta is seeking government support to give holiday company extra time to pay refunds for cancelled holidays, saying it is necessary “to help protect customer rights while preventing an industry-wide collapse of travel businesses, which would place a huge burden on the UK taxpayer”.
Mr Shapps said that when public transport opens up to non-essential journeys, he is aiming for a level of supply that would allow for social distancing: “One of the things I’ll be very keen to try to do is ensure that as people start to travel again, the amount of transport available, trains and buses, etc matches that, in order to make sure that people have confidence to return to using the transport network.”
He speculated that rush-hour pressure could ease as businesses continue to use online meeting services.
“The world will probably will not go back to the way it was before in all manner of different ways.
“It may well be that some companies say, actually it’s working pretty well having staff working from remote locations.
“Why does everybody have to travel during the rush hour at a particular time in the morning? Why don’t we have that more distanced during the day?”