What Boris Johnson’s potential resignation could mean for UK travel

Jan 13, 2022

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As pressure mounts on U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson to resign, how could a change in leadership affect the travel industry and future COVID-19 restrictions for travellers?

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Calls for Boris Johnson to resign have spread faster than fire in a wicker house for a few weeks now after reports emerged that he – and his staff – flouted lockdown rules to attend an alleged illegal party in the garden of 10 Downing Street. 

Related: Self-isolation period in UK cut to five days, here’s what you should know

The gathering happened at the height of the first U.K. lockdown when the rest of the country were instructed by the government to stay at home — and definitely not attend garden parties. The British public and his political opponents responded, quite reasonably, by being furious and calling for his resignation. 

Johnson has been adamant that it was a “work event” and not an illegal party (despite leaked emails revealing his staff were told to “bring their own booze” for the shindig). Critics have highlighted that the event coincided with then-Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden instructing the British public to only meet with one person outside of their household, and stay 2m apart.

In This Post

Will Boris Johnson resign?

The Prime Minister was obliterated during Wednesday’s PMQs amidst a tsunami of very British boos and wails from opposition benches and forlorn looks from his own party as he offered a thin apology. 

He managed to simultaneously apologise and accept full responsibility but also somehow remain stoic in the apparent view that his immediate resignation was not needed. The PM closed by saying he would not comment further on the incident until the end of a civil investigation into the matter. 

The big question isn’t really whether he should resign, but will he? With increasing pressure from within his own party, and the rest of the country it’s quite possible he’ll come to the conclusion that he’s had his fun, and lucrative speaking opportunities await. Time to draft the resignation letter. 

If he doesn’t he’ll either remain PM with the nightmarish task of winning back voter confidence, or he’ll be pushed from the inside following a Vote of No Confidence.

What a resignation could mean for the travel industry

This will all likely depend upon both who takes over for Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, and the Conservative Party’s own view on whether they need to shake up their approach to COVID-19 if he’s ousted. Here are the options a new Prime Minister could look towards to reduce the spread of the virus.

A push for mandatory boosters

According to YouGov, as of December, only 31% of the British public believe the government is handling the pandemic “very” or “somewhat” well, which is terribly low considering the success of the vaccine rollout that Johnson’s government regularly champions. 

This could be down to the flip-flopping of testing requirements following the spread of omicron, the vagueness of Plan B measures or – as is most likely – the disdain for the PM following his garden party indiscretions and repeated accusations of cronyism. Worse still, only 13% believe that the COVID-19 pandemic is improving in the U.K., according to YouGov.

By contrast, 77% of British people have “a lot” or a “fair amount” of confidence in the British health authorities who consistently remind us the NHS is at breaking point. 

Further data shows 62% – almost two-thirds – would support making booster jabs a requirement for the general public, with 36% in strong support. 

While the U.K. Health Secretary Sajid Javid has said this idea isn’t currently being considered by the government, he also hasn’t ruled it out — could this change if Johnson isn’t running the show?

If ever there was a time that the Conservative Party needed to win back public trust, now is it. Indeed, back in December, a separate poll revealed only 5% of respondents believed politicians “work for the public good.” Moving to action growing public sentiments towards mandatory booster requirements, in a manner that also eases pressure on the NHS is an easy PR win. 

If it came into force, it would presumably also affect arrivals in the U.K., as it has in other European countries such as France and Austria. I’d say, don’t rule this one out.

Further testing and quarantine restrictions

On 7 January, the government ditched the requirement to show a negative COVID-19 test before travelling to the U.K and reduced regulations for self-isolation. The move was welcomed by the travel industry which had previously criticised the measures as being needlessly prohibitive given the spread of omicron. However, it was also a tactic at odds with much of Europe where negative results are required for travel to a growing number of countries. 

Within the government it caused turmoil, ministers being on one of two sides — loosen restrictions to keep the economy and travel booming or keep them in place to reduce the threat of future restrictions. 

The most vocal of whom was potential PM-successor Sajid Javid. According to reports, the current health secretary was strongly opposed to cutting the measures previously in place. Javid went as far as to suggest the move could increase the risk of a future lockdown and reduce the ability to track future mutations of COVID-19. 

It is not impossible that heightened testing requirements could return under a new government, although this wouldn’t go down well with holidaymakers. More than half of whom feel the financial costs of COVID-19 tests are the main barrier for travel.

However, given the reports of the government’s potential plans to scale down free NHS testing, it seems unlikely that we’ll once again see testing in place in the manner it was due to both governmental and public personal costs alone. But it shouldn’t be wholly ruled out if the COVID-19 situation deteriorates further.

The rollout of “Plan C”

The nuclear option of a circuit-breaker lockdown, or tighter restrictions. Vis-à-vis, the one everyone would be keen to avoid. 

SAGE advisers have been upfront about the need for stricter curbs since before Christmas. However, the very fact that we haven’t seen such measures put in place before now would suggest there’s little appetite internally at Downing Street. 

While nothing says, “there’s a new sheriff in town” quite like completely overhauling the old regime, a last-minute introduction of a Plan C feels unlikely, and somewhat performative at this stage. It would take serious cajones for a new Tory leader to impose a second lockdown and risk political fallout while also further depressing the pandemic-tired public.

Plan C doesn’t seem at all likely at present but, as we’ve said before, the pandemic is full of twists and turns. Should a variant scarier than omicron and delta arise, a successor to Johnson might be keen to act fast rather than face the same criticisms of their predecessor. 

Who could take over and are they likely to introduce new travel measures?

(Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Rishi Sunak

Current job: Chancellor of the Exchequer.

When the recent pre-departure testing requirements were dropped, Sunak was a big fan, going as far as saying to the Evening Standard that it was “good news for the travel sector” and a “positive step to boost tourism.” 

Having previously been Chief Secretary to the Treasury and now Chancellor of the Exchequer he’s a strong proponent of economic recovery. Curtailing travel in a way that’s drastically negative for tourism just doesn’t feel like his style. Ultimately he just wants to keep the country open and avoid mounting pandemic debt.

That said, he is also very pro-booster saying: “it’s the best way to protect your health, to protect jobs across the capital and to keep the economy open.” If he thought it would keep money rolling in I have no doubt he’d make boosters mandatory which would likely affect arrivals too. But it would be, in my opinion, an uncontroversial measure and not out of line with the direction the rest of the world is also moving.

Odds of being the next PM: 9/4

(Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Liz Truss

Current job: Foreign Secretary. 

Truss was incredibly enthusiastic about the easing of travel restrictions back in October 2021, saying at the time: “These updates make travel abroad easier – boosting trade, tourism and reuniting friends and families. I am delighted that the safe reopening of travel allows people to exercise personal responsibility and visit more destinations across the globe.”

One of few members of the cabinet to not find herself knee-deep in recurring crisis during her time in office, she’ll be keen to maintain this record without rocking the boat, in my opinion.

If she brings in any new changes I’d imagine it will be reluctantly, and she seems savvy enough to let science lead the way. That said, as U.K.’s Brexit negotiator she also knows about exerting pressure on the EU and I can’t imagine she’d hesitate imposing restrictions on European countries to strongarm the EU into providing better U.K. deals. She openly backed Remain during Brexit but has since claimed she’d vote differently now which arguably indicates she’s not above completely changing her political stance to curry favour. 

Odds of being the next PM: 22/5

(Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Jeremy Hunt

Current job: Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee. 

Jeremy Hunt has made absolutely no bones about criticising Boris Johnson for his handling of the pandemic. Last year he made headlines for saying the U.K. should have gone into lockdown sooner in 2020, but made it very clear he holds Boris Johnson entirely responsible. He was also admittedly, in his own words, part of the “group think” that gave Boris bad advice in the first place.

It might be that he still can’t get over losing to Boris in the leadership race of 2019, it could also be that Boris Johnson is terrible and Hunt knows it despite his loyalty since returning as a backbencher. Or it could be that his former role as health secretary and current one on the health and social care committee places him in a position to really see how bad things got. If he takes the big seat he’s going to be keener than mustard to ensure COVID-19 never again reaches the magnitude it did at the beginning of the pandemic. If that means imposing travel measures we can’t imagine him being bombastic enough to ignore it if he starts getting déjà vu.

Our opinion? He’ll approach everything with caution. 

Odds of being the next PM: 11/1 

(Photo by Tom Nicholson-WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Sajid Javid

Current job: Health Secretary 

If Javid steps up and doesn’t take a tougher stance than Johnson on COVID-19 measures it would essentially devalue everything he’s been saying as health secretary and undermine much of his authority as a new PM. 

He was notably, one of the few in Johnson’s cabinet that actively pushed against lifting travel restrictions in January, suggesting it could lead to another lockdown. But, he did also clear off England’s red list, so it’s not like he has a huge bee in his bonnet about travel. 

My view? At the very least he’d be quite likely to push for more stringent testing requirements for travel, should he be given the chance to. But would he bring us back to the days of full travel bans and lockdowns? Probably not if he can help it. 

Odds of being the next PM: 14/1

(Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

Michael Gove

Current job: Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and Minister for Intergovernmental Relations

This is a man that was pinged by the COVID app last year after watching the Champions League final in Portugal. A man recently spotted bleary-eyed and dancing alone at a nightclub in Aberdeen. A man who was spotted dancing again, several weeks later, bleary-eyed to Dancing Queen with his arms raised high at a work disco. A man who works in politics but also admitted to taking cocaine on more than one occasion. 

This does not seem like the sort of man who will introduce any kind of travel measures that could curtail his own fun. In the past, while, he has backed delays to the easing of lockdowns, he’s also been straightforward in saying that “We are going to have to live with Covid.” By-and-large he’s very much backed Boris Johnson’s approach to COVID-19.

If he becomes PM, which feels very unlikely, we imagine he’ll act very much like Boris, flip-flopping and last minute in his decision making rather than risk not seeming like ‘a laugh.’ 

Odds of being the next PM: 16/1

Bottom line

If current U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson resigns for his carte blanche approach to COVID-19 restrictions, the nation will be looking for a leader to exert some kind of signal that they take COVID-19 seriously, and this would come in many forms. 

It feels unlikely that anybody stepping into the role will actively seek to disrupt travel with anything close to the restrictions of 2020, unless we see new variants or omicron hospitalisation rates increase. But it’s not impossible that travel could be affected as a side effect of other new restrictions on daily life. 

If we were to speculate, it feels most feasible that any changes would come in an invigorated push for more boosters, and possible steps to make them mandatory. Is this a bad thing for travel? Regardless of what happens to Boris Johnson or who his successor might be, these steps already feel like they’re on the horizon. 

Many other countries are now making it essential that travellers are fully vaxxed pre-arrival, that vaccines and boosters could be mandatory to travel to most countries or enter certain venues and spaces within them feels like an inevitability at this point. But crucially an inevitability that will allow us to continue travelling freely.

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