Coronavirus mini-series: (2) legislation

With the country in a state of almost total lockdown, now is as good a time as any to consider the extraordinary legislation brought in by the government to tackle the Coronavirus pandemic and its implications for the international travel industry. This blog post, by Spencer Turner of 12 King’s Bench Walk, is the second in our mini-series on this subject.

Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 (‘the Coronavirus Regulations’)  

The political machine has had to move at an uncharacteristically fast pace to respond to the Coronavirus crisis; the Coronavirus Regulations, which were enacted on 26 March, contain sweeping restrictions which the United Kingdom has not seen in peacetime. Their purpose, as stated by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, was to ‘protect the public and isolate those at risk of spreading the virus’.

What exactly do the Coronavirus Regulations do? In short, they broadly provide for the following:

  • The closure of non-essential premises (regulations 4 and 5);
  • Restrictions on movement (regulation 6); and
  • Restrictions on gatherings of two or more people (regulation 10).

There are broad powers of enforcement contained in the Coronavirus Regulations. Regulation 8 allows ‘relevant persons’ to ‘take any action as is necessary to enforce any requirement imposed by regulation 4, 5, or 7.’

The Coronavirus Act 2020 further attempts to mitigate the impact of the virus. It provides for a wide range of new rules, including:

  • The temporary closure of schools (sections 37 and 38);
  • The expansion of the availability of video and audio links in court proceedings (sections 53 to 57); and
  • The power to restrict events and shut down non-essential premises (schedule 22).

In light of the legislation it is safe to say that any plans you had to go and get a tan on your Easter holiday are now cancelled. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office initially advised against all non-essential overseas travel for British nationals. This was followed by advice on 23 March that all British travellers should return to the United Kingdom. Subsequently, a £75 million repatriation package was announced to bring stranded Britons home. The current advice is, in effect, to remain indoors and limit yourself to one outing a day for exercise.

It is not difficult to see how the pandemic and subsequent legislation which restricts the vast majority of travel has put huge strain on the travel industry. The challenges that the industry has to now contend with are considerable. Tour operators, airlines and other travel providers face huge uncertainty, particularly in the short and medium term; restrictions in travel have caused sales to collapse and there is considerable demand for refunds for cancelled flights and holidays. Liquidity is a major problem.

ABTA have written to the government to say that the virus has put enormous strain on tour operators and have warned that, without government intervention, a number of travel firms could find themselves bankrupt (which, as an aside, would create problems for consumers too – it would be more difficult for to access refunds in the case of cancelled trips, for example). In an attempt to alleviate some of the financial pressure, ABTA have proposed that the 14 day window for refund payments under the Package Travel Regulations should be extended to a 4 month period (our blog considered the impacts of the virus on the Package Travel Industry here. ABTA has also proposed the temporary suspension of Air Passenger Duty to assist with liquidity issues.

At this stage, we are waiting to see how the government will respond to assist the travel industry. The government has already announced measures such as the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme and the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme to help business, but it is right to say that further steps will have to be taken quickly to assist the travel industry in the short term.

On the other side of the coin, consumers are questioning what their rights are in light of widespread restrictions and cancellations. Many consumers have seen their incomes drop as a result of the virus and are understandably keen to access refunds for cancelled holidays as soon as possible.

The key for the government now is striking the balance between providing assistance to the travel industry in light of the unique way in which it has been impacted by the virus and the interests of individual consumers. There will certainly be more to say about the situation as it continues to develop.

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