Airbnb disables instant book functions to halt lockdown retreats

UK: Airbnb has switched off its ‘instant book’ function and blocked all private room bookings for the foreseeable future in the UK in response to a national report which revealed short-term rental hosts were using the platform to offer Covid-19 ‘retreats’ despite the nationwide lockdown currently in place.

A report published by the BBC highlighted how certain home owners have been listing their properties publicly on the site as a “perfect family retreat for self-isolation from Covid-19” in the British countryside with “over two acres of woods”.

A selected number of properties were advertised as “idyllic cottages”, “houseboats” or “castle” retreats.

That would appear to contravene new government laws stating that holiday homes should only be offered to key workers, such as NHS health professionals, who are carrying out essential work and need to self-isolate from the general public and, at times, loved ones, amid the coronavirus outbreak.

After BBC News revealed that some rental properties did not require any form of vetting prior to an instant booking, Airbnb said in a statement that it wanted hosts and guests to follow the rules and that it had “no tolerance” for listings that ignore health or travel advisories.

A company spokesperson said: “The government has set out clear guidance on the limited conditions under which necessary travel is permitted and we have taken a number of steps to support these measures. Hosts in the UK are also opening their homes to NHS and other healthcare providers as part of a global initiative that has seen more than 100,000 places to stay made available so far.”

Tourism minister Nigel Huddleston tweeted in response: “A reminder that essential travel does not include holidays, leisure travel and visits to second homes – and people must remain in their primary residence. It is irresponsible and dangerous for some property owners to be marketing themselves as ‘isolation retreats’.

“We are writing to companies today to remind them of their responsibilities at this time,” he added.

The news comes as an unwanted development for Airbnb, which recently came in for criticism for its handling of booking cancellations in light of Covid-19 and its change of heart regarding its extenuating circumstances policy. CEO Brian Chesky has now pledged to pay out up to $250 million in cancellations to hosts [with hosts receiving 25 per cent of what they would normally get back from their existing cancellation policies] and has set up a $10 million Super Host relief fund.

In addition, Airbnb has lowered its internal valuation from $31 billion to $26 billion to account for the drop in bookings and has received $1 billion in funding from Silver Lake and Sixth Street Partners, made up of debt and equity securities, to stave off the full fallout of the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, Dr Catherine Calderwood was forced to resign from her role as Scotland’s chief medical officer [CMO] on Sunday after she ignored her own guidance on lockdown regulations to go and stay at her second home in Earlsferry, Fife, with her family.