Coronavirus and your rights
There appears to be no end in sight about the ongoing Coronavirus situation. In the meantime, many people are worried about holidays which they have booked or will book and where they may stand.
The coronavirus outbreak originated in China, but the World Health Organisation (WHO) says most new cases are now being seen outside China. The most affected countries are currently Iran, Italy and South Korea.
The World Health Organization has declared that the Coronavirus is a public health emergency of international concern. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has increased the risk level from low to moderate.
If you suspect that you may have been exposed to the virus do not go to a GP surgery, pharmacy or hospital. The FCO is regularly updating the list of countries from which, if you have travelled, you should telephone the 111 coronavirus service.
Passengers departing from an airport within the EU, whatever the airline is, and also applies to passengers departing from an airport outside the EU for an airport within the EU, if the operating air carrier is a Community carrier. (I.e. a carrier with a valid operating license granted by an EU state) should get a full refund for flights. You will need to check terms and conditions for other airlines but it is expected that all airlines will be refunding in full.
It is always advisable to take out travel insurance at the same time as you book your holiday. The majority of people do not do this though, not realising that the cover should pay out if you contract an illness or cannot travel for any other reason.
The latest ABTA research in May 2018 showed that two in five people (38%) – 9.9 million Britons who travelled abroad in the previous 12 months – holidayed without the right travel insurance. They either took part in activities which may not have been covered, or didn’t have any insurance at all.
The coronavirus appears to have worried people into purchasing insurance though! According to figures from GoCompare last month, on a 7 day basis, purchases have increased by 277% and comparing this to the same day last year, they’ve increased by 159%.
Here’s what to look out for when buying travel insurance:
- Check the policy that you take out. Do not necessarily go for the cheapest, check the excess and what the cover will pay out if the trip is cancelled.
- Check the fine print for how the insurance will cover you if the flight is cancelled, for the accommodation and for the flight if the hotel is cancelled. Many will only cover one of these scenarios.
- Remember that the travel insurance covers medical bills and you may also want to check that it covers you if you have to stay quarantined, whether at home or away.
- If you have travel insurance cover provided by your bank account, check that it is adequate.
- Make sure that you advise the company of pre-existing health conditions, as you could invalidate the insurance if you do not do this.
- You still need an EHIC card when travelling in Europe. This provides access to state medical care and does not include repatriation to the UK if you are taken seriously ill, for example. Also many travel insurance companies will say in their small print that they expect you to use the card.
- If you have already got cover, check that It covers everything you need. If it doesn’t ask for an upgrade.
- Due to the unknown circumstances and possible eventualities of the coronavirus it is difficult to tell whether insurers will pay out on claims. However, if you feel that you have been treated unfairly and that the insurer should have paid out, you can take your case to the Financial Ombudsman Service.
Figures from the Association of British Insurers (ABI) show that, in 2018, 498,000 holiday insurance claims were made, resulting in a total pay out of £399m. Of these:
153,000 claims were for medical expenses, paying out £209m
167,000 claims were for cancellations paying out £145m
79,000 claims were for baggage and money claims paying out £17m
In 2017, 496,000 claims were made resulting in a total pay out of £382m. Once again, if you do not take adequate cover, you may well lose out on money that would otherwise be owed to you.
Malcolm Tarling, spokesperson for the ABI said “The primary role of travel insurance is to cover the costs of needing any emergency medical treatment while travelling overseas, the costs of which can easily run into hundreds of thousands of pounds. Anyone travelling abroad without travel insurance is at risk of potentially financially crippling medical bills.”
What airlines are doing regarding coronavirus
At the time of writing, BA is the first airline to offer flexible rebooking policies for customers travelling to Hong Kong and cities across Northern Italy – including Milan (Linate and Malpensa), Turin, Bologna, Venice, Bergamo and Verona – who want to delay their travel to a later date. It is also waiving the change fee for customers who book any time during 2 – 16 March 2020.
Where BA is cancelling flights, it is offering rebooking options or a full refund of the price paid.
At the time of writing TUI and Jet2 had not responded to requests for a statement about the status of flights, what changes they would be making in light of the outbreak and if they would be paying out on the EU flight delay compensation for delayed and cancelled flights.
Rory Boland, Editor of Which? Travel, said:
“While more airlines are improving their cancellation terms and waiving flight change fees for new customers to encourage bookings, it’s disappointing that this is not being extended to customers with existing bookings who couldn’t have known how this outbreak would have an impact on their holidays.
“This lack of flexibility is inevitably going to lead to more cancellations from passengers too worried to travel – airlines should do right by their existing passengers and relax their policies so they can still fly at a later date.”
Update 10/03/20 more airlines are now providing flexible bookings on more flights but there is little news on how they will support passengers stuck in Italy.
If you have a trip booked, keep an eye on the FCO website and contact your airline.
Annual travel insurance
If you are due to travel after your annual insurance expires, make sure you renew it before you travel. If the FCO puts a warning in place for your destination before any gap in policy you won’t be covered.
Booked a holiday and don’t want to travel?
If you have already booked a holiday, check the holiday advice for the country on the FCO website. Note that at the time of writing this article, the FCO is advising against all but essential travel to 10 small towns in Lombardy and one in Veneto which have been isolated by the Italian authorities, which are not tourist areas in any case. So, you would be able to travel to other parts of the country.
You would only be able to claim on travel insurance if the FCO had advised against travel to where you are due to go. If you decide not to travel where there has been no warning about travelling it would be considered a “disinclination to travel” and standard policies won’t cover this.
If you choose to cancel your flight and can’t get a refund, claim the Air Passenger Duty back from the airline. This will usually be £13 on a short-haul flight to Europe and £78 for long-haul flights. Some airlines charge a fee to claim APD back, so check the amount you are claiming is more than the fee charged.
Still to fly to a booked holiday in an affected area
If you booked your trip before coronavirus was known about and because the FCO has warned against travel, you are likely to invalidate your travel insurance if you still fly and so you should check with your insurer. Whether you are covered by your insurer would depend on the cover you have and the reason for travel. If, for example, you are travelling for a holiday then it is unlikely that this would be considered essential and you should be covered.
The airline or tour operator should refund your payment in full, but if there are problems you can contact your insurance company.
If you booked/book a trip after late January 2020, when the virus was known about, then travel insurance is unlikely to cover you for part of your trip affected.
Package holiday with an event attached
You may be going away to see/be part of on event such as a carnival that has been cancelled or a sporting event that must now be played behind closed doors. If this is part of your package you should be able to cancel and get a full refund with no fee. You would be covered by the Package Travel and Linked Travel Arrangements Regulations 2018 because the organiser has no alternative but to significantly alter the main characteristics of the package.
Events in this country
If an event is cancelled in this country then you should receive a full refund, whether you paid to participate or to watch. If events start to be cancelled your contract is with the company to which you paid the money. The organiser should issue you with a full refund. This should really be automatic but do give them a fair time to administer as they may not necessarily have the staff. Should you not receive the refund within a couple of weeks contact the CEO (using https://ceoemail.com for the contact details) to escalate the matter and threaten taking them through the Small Claims Court. This should put you to the front of the queue!
If an event goes ahead but the accommodation at which you were going to stay has cancelled, the hotel will have to refund the event organiser will not have to do so. You can try and get a refund if there is nowhere else to stay but this will be at the discretion of the organiser.
If the event goes ahead but some of the show is missing because acts are ill, for example, you should prove that you have lost part of what you paid for and attempt to get a partial refund.
You are at far more risk of becoming ill, or worse, from many other things than the coronavirus, so keep things in perspective. Most importantly, listen out for the latest news from Government and contact your airline or tour operator regularly, as things are changing all the time.