‘While they were partying, we were saving our livelihoods’

Party at Downing St
By Lisa James
12/01/2022
Home » ‘While they were partying, we were saving our livelihoods’

Furious Brits have been sharing heartbreaking stories about what was happening in their lives around the time of Number 10’s garden drinks party – but, while around 40 Downing Street staff were breaking the rules, this is what the travel industry was having to contend with…

On 20 May 2020, when 100 Downing Street staff were invited to the BYOB party to ‘make the most of the lovely weather’, UK domestic holidays were banned and the Government told us summer overseas getaways were unlikely.

A few days before the party, then-Health Minister Matt Hancock told This Morning’s Holly and Phil that restricted movement was a ‘reality of life’ during the pandemic.

Matt Hancock said 2020 summer holidays were unlikely

When asked whether ‘summer was cancelled’, he said that was ‘likely to be the case’, adding ‘social distancing of some kind is going to continue’.

“The conclusion from that is that it is unlikely that big, lavish international holidays are going to be possible for this summer,” he said.

Around the same time, Blackburn-based Enjoy Travel ceased trading after 30 years, blaming ‘the savage destruction meted out to the travel and entertainment industries’ for its collapse.

Then, while the party-goers were probably still nursing their hangovers, one of the UK’s biggest and best-loved holiday companies was about to go bust, with the loss of over 2,500 jobs.

Specialist Leisure Group went into administration on Friday 22 May, blaming the impact of COVID-19.

The owner of brands including 100-year-old Shearings Holidays, Wallace Arnold Travel and National Holidays, had over 64,000 bookings.

ABTA’s then-Director of Membership and Financial Services John de Vial said the collapse was ‘a stark indication of the pressure the holiday industry is under’, adding: “Today is a very sad day for these customers and the thousands of staff who will have lost their jobs.”

The JG Travel Group Trade Sales Manager Claire Dutton was working at Shearings at the time. She told Travel Gossip: “I was sick with worry. This Downing Street party was two days before SLG collapsed, and 2,500 of us lost our jobs.

“Whilst they enjoyed their drinks, we were all stuck at home on our own, away from our colleagues, desperately hoping the company could be saved.”

Ahead of SLG’s collapse, ABTA and the Scottish Passenger Agents Association urged the Government to agree to a flexible furlough arrangement for travel agency staff to carry out limited work and handle customer enquiries.

In addition, at the time of the party, there was no firm announcement the furlough scheme was even being extended beyond June. Yet SPAA stats showed 85% of its members who had claimed on business interruption insurance thus far in the pandemic had been unsuccessful and the other 15% were still waiting on a decision.

Days before the party, TUI said it planned to cut up to 8,000 jobs, Ryanair and Virgin Atlantic said they would each cut 3,000 jobs and British Airways set out plans to make 12,000 staff redundant.

At the time, the then-BA CEO Alex Cruz said in a letter to staff: “Yesterday, British Airways flew just a handful of aircraft out of Heathrow. On a normal day we would fly more than 300. What we are facing as an airline, like so many other businesses up and down the country, is that there is no ‘normal’ any longer.”

TARGET Co-Founder Graeme Brett described news of the latest party as ‘absolutely disgusting’.

TARGET says it was harder to deal with claims while working from home

He said: “While Downing Street was having a party, travel agents were forced to work from home and deal with customers remotely.

“Shearings and National Holidays went into administration and agents were trying to assist customers with claims from their bond provider. This was really difficult from home.

“The Shearings/National Holidays collapse left another 2,500 travel employees out of work and tens of thousands of other travel agents were fearful for their jobs and businesses with many taking second jobs in care homes, call centres, supermarkets – trying to save our livelihoods.

“The action of Downing Street yet again shows the total contempt for the travel industry by this Government.”

His TARGET colleague, Co-Founder Jill Waite, added: “While Downing Street was partying, our travel colleagues were mourning the loss of their staff, and – in several cases – their businesses.

“Personally, I had a long-standing member of staff (of 24 years) that handed in her notice, and left the industry, due to the uncertainty surrounding travel. She has still not returned, and I’m not sure she ever will.  She is obviously a huge loss to my company.”

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