Matthew Hancock’s half-hour in the travel limelight is over

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The former Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, has had his invitation to speak at a leading travel industry conference withdrawn after his WhatsApp messages on Covid restrictions were revealed.

Mr Hancock had been booked for the Institute of Travel & Tourism (ITT) annual conference in Qatar in early June.

The event has in the past been notable for hosting controversial figures including Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.

But many in the travel industry regard Mr Hancock as having played a central role in restricting international journeys during the coronavirus pandemic.

The immediate reaction – before the revelations of WhatsApp messages within government – was summed up by Paul Charles, CEO of travel consultancy The PC Agency, who said: “What on earth are the ITT playing at? This is someone who didn’t hesitate to almost destroy the travel and tourism sector with unproven and untested policies that lasted two years.

“How much is he being paid to tell his story of incompetence?”

In the days after the ITT made the announcement about Mr Hancock, leaked WhatsApp messages showed the then Health Secretary joking with Cabinet Secretary Simon Case about hotel quarantine.

On 5 February 2021, a month after a 19-week ban on international leisure travel had begun, hotel quarantine was introduced.

Mr Hancock wrote: “We are giving big families all the suites and putting pop stars in the box rooms.”

Mr Case replied: “I just want to see some of the faces of people coming out of first class and into a Premier Inn shoe box.”

The then Health Secretary also accused the aviation industry of being “totally offside” and “completely unhelpful”.

Two Parliamentary committees later concluded that hotel quarantine had been of no use in controlling the spread of the virus.

After reading the WhatsApp conversations and their apparent contempt for the travel industry, Mr Freudmann – the ITT Chair – said: “The decision was triggered by the publication of his WhatsApp messages.

“Some of his private messages are really shocking and clearly we now know that he is no friend of the travel industry as evidenced by his messages and avalanche of criticism on social media.

“We had been hoping that we could concentrate on lessons learnt from the handling of the pandemic but in the end we simply decided that it would be unfair on our other 25 distinguished speakers if the entire focus was on Hancock.”

Paul Goldstein, co-owner of Kicheche safari lodges in Kenya and a prominent campaigner against travel restrictions during the pandemic, said: “I protested consistently to The Independent and others, and my MP, throughout Covid,– deeply frustrated by the behaviour of Hancock and [Transport Secretary Grant] Shapps.

“Hancock’s advocacy of the destructive and unsubstantiated two weeks of quarantine over a week’s home testing was reprehensible.”

Paul Charles of The PC Agency said: “Sense has prevailed. He should never have been booked in the first place but I’m delighted ITT have backed down under pressure from many of us in travel who fought such ridiculous government policies, cooked up by Matt Hancock.

“Speakers should in future be constructive supporters of travel, not travel wreckers.”

Other speakers at the ITT event in Qatar include Jon Wilks, the UK Ambassador to Qatar, and Bruce Poon Tip, founder of G Adventures.

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