23
October 2020

Written by:

Thomas Woolhouse

Senior Account Manager

Come fly with me

Throughout COVID-19, Cavendish Advocacy has worked to support clients who operate in sectors that are amongst those hardest hit by the pandemic. This includes the travel industry.

The global disruption caused by COVID has wiped out the demand that typically exists amongst passengers to travel, and the job losses that have been experienced throughout the industry are deeply sad and well documented.

This damage has been exacerbated by the fact that the industry has continued to feel the effects of COVID long after other parts of the economy have had an opportunity to reopen. There has been no Government support for the travel or aviation industries (beyond those measures made available nationwide) whilst the ever changing system of travel corridors has proven to be a blunt instrument that has failed to stop the spread of COVID whilst artificially suppressing demand.

UK policy makers currently have the unenviable task of trying to determine how best to balance managing the virus, whilst enabling the economy to restart.  For the travel industry, the answer is testing at airports.

This week Heathrow Airport introduced a pilot scheme whereby passengers flying from Hong Kong will have the option of paying for a rapid COVID test before they check in and travel. The aim is to help people travelling to destinations where proof of a negative result is required on arrival, and ultimately end the need for passengers to quarantine.

The introduction of airport testing is an encouraging step in the right direction. However, the UK remains far behind other countries like Japan, France, Austria and Germany, all of whom are using testing at airports to revive their economies, maintain public health and restore confidence in travel.

The UK must seek to replicate this success, and Cavendish has engaged with the Department for Transport to drive forward this agenda, and to champion other key initiatives to support the travel industry. 

It has not always been an easy process. Civil servants have shown themselves willing to meet, especially where it will help them develop their own knowledge. However, throughout much of 2020, the DfT showed a distinct reluctance to engage at a political level. It later became apparent that this was partly due to frustration brought on by the frequent leaks which accompanied meetings between Government and industry.

This is understandable, but no less problematic. The Civil Service is ultimately constrained by the policies set by their political masters, and the unwillingness of a minister to engage limits the extent to which they can be supportive. It is especially unhelpful to a client, who can only watch as their industry is eaten alive by COVID. 

As public affairs professionals, we have been required to get around this by adopting less direct methods. This oftentimes means building support amongst backbench MPs willing to raise our concern for jobs with the Government, or approaching a different department where there may be a policy overlap.

In recent months, we have begun to see the Department for Transport adopt a new attitude towards engagement. There is a new Aviation Minister, and his appointment has been accompanied by a greater willingness to meet and discuss the challenges facing the travel industry.

This may seem like a small victory in the scheme of things, but I have previously worked for a minister. Their diaries are relentless, and securing a meeting is no small feat.

Certainly from my perspective, the experience has emphasized how important the attitude of the individual minster is to facilitating clear lines of communication between the Government and those industries seeking political support and guidance.

If a minister is unwilling to engage it can be like pushing against a brick wall. However, recent developments suggest that the aviation and travel industries now have a strong champion in Government (which is not always a given) and that they may soon be able to restart in a way that restores consumer confidence, and manages the risks of COVID, which although not unbeatable, will likely be with us for the long-haul.

If you are involved with the travel and aviation industry and would like to hear further details then please do not hesitate to get in contact with thomas.woolhouse@cavendishadvocacy.com.