Travel agents are on only 15% of normal income — Northern Ireland’s vaccine passport system said to be in chaos

Northern Ireland travel agents are operating on only around 10-20% of their normal income levels due to Covid restrictions - and the fact that NI is lagging far behind GB in producing vaccine passports is causing huge stress for travellers and agents.

Saturday, 31st July 2021, 6:30 am
Updated Sunday, 1st August 2021, 2:55 pm

Those were the views last night of travel agents across NI, while the owner of one award winning bar said he is surviving on 40% of normal income.

Their comments come after Stormont ministers announced relaxations on international travel and social distancing on Thursday.

From Monday, travellers from the US, EU amber countries and a number of other nations who are fully vaccinated, can enter without the need to quarantine. However NI residents face huge difficulties in travelling due to difficulties in securing evidence of vaccination.

Flights to the sun have been even more disrupted this year than last, according to travel agents

Indoor settings in NI will now see social distancing reduced from two to one metres, bringing retail into line with hospitality. Social distancing is no longer required in outdoors settings, though one to two metres is still urged.

Executive ministers have also extended a decision on allowing the return of live music at theatres and concert venues to cover other indoor venues, such as hotel function rooms and community halls. There will be no restriction on volume level but entry will be by advance ticket only.

Scott Parker, managing director of Feherty Travel in Bangor says business this year has been “a nightmare”.

“I would say we are operating at around 10-20% of a normal summer. The big message is that the government needs to stop all the uncertainty over travel lists. They have been telling people they can book a holiday and then two weeks later the destination is off the list and the customers are sunk.” 

Damian Murphy (front right), Chair of the Association of Northern Ireland Travel Agents (ANITA), and representatives from across the Northern Ireland travel trade - including travel agents, airlines, ferries and hospitality - met with local MLAs including (L-R) Mike Nesbitt (UUP), Sinead McLaughlin (SDLP), Caoimhe Archibald (Sinn Fein) and Stewart Dickson (Alliance) at Stormont last month to lobby for payment of backdated financial support and the reopening of international travel.

“And then after that we have the fact that Northern Ireland is one of the only countries in the whole of Europe where you still can’t get a vaccine certificate [also known as vaccine passport].”

The Department of Health app was temporarily taken offline this week due to security concerns.

The alternative is to pay for Covid tests just before you leave, but he notes that this is an additional cost and is not accepted by all. GB and the EU both have their own passes which are working smoothly through smartphones, he notes.

“We are just left behind as normal.”

Heather Gallagher, Managing Director of Gallagher Travel in Londonderry and ABTA Travel Association spokeswoman for NI, sees the same problem across the province.

“I just had someone through today who just got her certificate in time, and so does not have to do a test before she travels. But it was cutting it so close, she was actually crying with me in the office.”

She affirms that income for NI travel agents may be down as low as 10% of normal.

“Without a doubt, those are the scary figures people are talking about. We only make money when people travel.”

A government support scheme for travel agents until March just paid out in July.

“But the travel agencies will be the last industry to get back on its feet. Most agents are still using furlough but it finishes at the end of September so we are calling for sector specific support.”

Sandra Corkin, Managing Director of Oasis Travel, concurred.

“There is no doubt that the ever changing restrictions have undermined customer confidence this year,” she said. “Added to that the cost of tests and complications with the covid certificate has meant that the travel industry is having another poor summer. Bookings are coming in for later this year and for summer 22 and it is critical that we see stability with government advice.”

Stephen Reynolds, proprietor of the award winning Front Page Bar in Ballymena said that “as per usual” he is finding the latest restrictions “a bit vague”.

He has been trading with live music as a key draw for 31 years, but up until now he has found the requirements around tickets and music volumes too restrictive to bring back live musicians.

“We are struggling,” he said. “We had financial reserves which have well gone at this stage.”

He says hospitality has been the hardest hit sector, and traditional non-food pubs like his even more so.

“We might be open but we have one hand tied behind our back.”

Overhead costs have risen significantly as extra staff are needed to supervise and manage patrons.

“There are a lot of labour costs involved. We would be functioning at something like 40% because there are still 1m social distancing restrictions in place.”

Joe Dougan, A promoter for Shine Belfast, which oversees major Belfast festivals like Belsonic and the Custom House Square gigs, welcomed Stormont’s latest relaxations.

“Any reduction in restrictions, deemed safe by our executive, are welcomed by the concert industry,” he said. “Whilst we are still some way behind England in terms of curtailments on live music, these are all progressive, deliberate steps forward and I hope that we’ll return to relative normality for indoor music performances soon.”

Meanwhile, the official in charge of NI vaccine passports said yesterday that there have been “frantic” efforts to resolve problems with Northern Ireland’s Covid-19 vaccine certificate system.

Dr Eddie O’Neill, from the Department of Health, said staff worked until 5am yesterday to try to fix problems. It is not clear at the time of going to press to what extent problems may have been fixed.

The system has been out of action due to a risk of some applicants’ data being wrongly sent to other users.

The certificates are required by people who are travelling abroad and need official proof that they have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19.

However, the online system has been overwhelmed by “thousands and thousands” of applications from holidaymakers.

Some certificates are still being issued manually, but many holidaymakers fear their documentation will not arrive on time.

“Essentially, we took down the service on Tuesday - the full service - because we were concerned about data security,” Dr O’Neill told BBC’s Good Morning Ulster yesterday.

“We took the only responsible action that we could. In the background, we’ve still been issuing certificates.”

Since Tuesday, staff have been processing applications manually and have issued 4,048 vaccination certificates over the last three days, he said.

“So we have been keeping the lights on but it’s just been frantic in the background trying to make sure that we can get something up and running for people on the first of August.”

Meanwhile, work is also “ongoing” to ensure that Irish passport holders in NI will be able to access the EU’s digital Covid certificate.

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