Grant Shapps has been so ineffective in restoring foreign travel his post should be re-named “Secretary of State for No Transport,” says the veteran airline boss Willie Walsh.
In an interview with The Telegraph, the former BA boss and now director-general of IATA, the air transport body, said the restrictions on travel were repressive, economically-damaging, wrong headed, extremely risk averse and based on politics rather than science.
“Since I joined BA back in 2005, I have worked with 10 secretaries of state, going back to Alistair Darling. I would rate Darling as the best of the 10. I cannot say Shapps was the worst. I would give that to Douglas Alexander, who didn’t appear to have any interest in the job,” said Mr Walsh.
“I would put Shapps at number nine. He is incredibly ineffective as Secretary of State for Transport. He should change his name to Secretary of State for No Transport. I doubt he carries any influence in Cabinet. He doesn’t appear to be able to influence any decision in Cabinet.
“I am clearly disappointed with the way the Government is proceeding with the UK but not surprised given the quality of what we are dealing with.”
The sharpness of his attack underlines the depth of the fracture in relations between the travel industry and the Government after its decision to axe Portugal from its green list, reducing it to just 11 countries with only Gibraltar and Iceland as viable holiday destinations in its traffic light system.
Mr Walsh said it was “disgraceful” for the Government to pull the rug from under consumers and abandon the criteria “where they clearly stated that they would give people a fair warning if the lights were going to change”. Up to 30,000 holidaymakers had just four days to race back to the UK to avoid quarantine.
He said he could understand the tough measures if it was the start of the pandemic but it was now 500 days since the virus emerged in the UK with a successful rollout of the vaccines that had been shown to suppress Covid transmission and were effective against all known variants.
“So the risk environment today is completely different and significantly lower than the risk we were dealing with. And yet the measures are the same, or in some cases more restrictive than when we were worried about the health systems being overrun,” said Mr Walsh.
“The Government is being disingenuous with the public. It was all about protect the NHS and save lives, and that all of these measures were necessary because of that. So, why are these measures in place today?”
He said official data showed just 2.12 per cent of the 410,500 people who had quarantined in hotels or their homes after arriving in the UK since February had tested positive for Covid. For Portugal, it was 0.5 per cent.
He said he could only conclude the Government was pursuing a zero-Covid strategy, which he feared would make Britain a “very strange” place to live. “It is extremely risk averse, it’s not restrictive, it’s now become repressive,” he said.
He believed this approach was politically, rather than medically driven, based on a belief that it would garner votes from the British public. “We’re not dealing with health risk. We’re dealing with political risk, which is a completely different situation,” he said.
He countered that with IATA’s own polling showing 66 per cent of the public wanted borders opened.
“More and more we’re seeing the evidence now, countries recognising that there isn’t a zero risk option,” he said. “Pursuing that has huge economic risk, which will be permanently damaging to the UK, particularly in a post-Brexit environment. That’s the bit that I don’t get.”