By Alistair Smout
LONDON (Reuters) – Home rental firm Airbnb blocked British bookings on its platform for the vast majority of customers on Thursday, allowing only key workers to stay in properties for as long as emergency government coronavirus restrictions are in place.
The move, first reported by Reuters, came after hosts using the site had been criticised for advertising “isolation retreats”, and it put pressure on other online booking platforms to follow suit.
Airbnb last week barred rentals that were private rooms in shared houses, and disabled the instant book function for whole properties, while offering guests refunds for rooms they no longer wished to take up.
But the latest step drastically tightens who can make bookings on the platform ahead of the Easter holiday weekend which begins on Friday.
“Restricting bookings on Airbnb to key workers and other essential stays will allow hosts to continue supporting frontline workers while following government guidance,” said Patrick Robinson, Director of Public Policy at Airbnb.
On March 23 Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered Britons to stay at home to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and imposed curbs on everyday life without precedent in peacetime Britain.
As part of the restrictions, the government has ordered hotels and other accommodation providers to take steps to close, unless they were providing services to key workers or vulnerable groups.
While listings will still appear on the platform, bookings on Airbnb were blocked from 9 a.m. local time (0800 GMT) on Thursday unless it is for an essential stay, with restrictions in place until at least April 18.
Tourism Minister Nigel Huddleston said Airbnb had done the right thing, adding that he had written to major online booking platforms to respect the guidance against leisure travel.
“I expect all providers to do the same and not take any non-essential bookings while social distancing guidance remains in place,” he said.
“It is incredibly irresponsible, and dangerous, for some property owners to be marketing themselves as ‘isolation retreats.'”
Ian Blackford, Scottish National Party lawmaker for a constituency in the Scottish Highlands, also welcomed the move, having previously warned that the sparsely-populated region could see unwanted visitors arriving for holidays.
The government has said it will review lockdown measures next week. Airbnb’s policy will be reviewed in line with guidance if the government extends the restrictions.
Last month Airbnb launched a programme to let hosts provide free rooms for health workers, which it said would continue and requires eligible staff to register separately on the site through their employer.
The company will now also work to maintain access for others who are legitimately exempt from the curbs.
(Reporting by Alistair Smout Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Estelle Shirbon/Mark Heinrich)