Coronavirus: Your rights as a traveller

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Thermal scans intended to detect the coronavirus are becoming widespread at airports

With new cases of the coronavirus being diagnosed in more and more locations, it’s hard to predict where it will pop up next.

But one thing is for certain: the disease has already become a nightmare for travellers and the tourism industry alike.

China, Italy, South Korea and Iran have reported significant numbers of cases and are doing their best to contain the threat.

So how do I stay safe without losing out financially?

If you have a trip booked to one of those destinations, your rights can depend on your choice of airline and the small print of your insurance policy.

But in practice, insurers and airlines generally take their cue from UK government travel advice.

If your intended destination is or was China, the situation is very clear-cut.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is advising against all but essential travel to mainland China and all travel to Hubei Province.

So if you travel against that advice and do manage to get there, you risk invalidating your insurance policy, though you may be able to argue that the trip is essential.

If you are there already, travel cover may not be valid in Hubei, but should continue elsewhere in China – again, if your stay is essential.

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The colourful Venice Carnival was cut short due to coronavirus fears

Actually, I was intending to go to Milan this weekend. Can I change my mind?

This is where it gets tricky. The mayor of Milan has temporarily closed all schools and universities as a precautionary measure.

And major events in northern Italy have been cancelled, cut short or rescheduled, including the Venice carnival and the Bologna book fair.

If you do land at Milan’s Malpensa airport, prepare to undergo a thermal scan to make sure you don’t have fever.

But for the time being at least, airlines will still sell you a ticket to go there, since flights from the UK are operating normally.

That’s because they rely on the FCO to tell them whether or not it is safe.

At the moment, the official UK government travel advice for Italy does not warn against visiting Milan, but it does note that the authorities have introduced “extraordinary measures” in Lombardy and five other regions.

“If you are already in the regions affected, you should follow the instructions of local authorities,” it adds.

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Does my insurance cover me if my trip doesn’t go ahead?

If the FCO hasn’t issued a warning, that means you can’t expect compensation if you get cold feet and decide to call the journey off.

Su Crown, a spokesperson for the Association of British Insurers, said: “In general, cancellation or travel disruption cover will activate when the FCO advises against all travel or all but essential travel to an area.

“Travel insurance is not designed to cover ‘disinclination to travel’ where the FCO advice has not changed to advise against travel.”

AXA UK, one of the leading travel insurers, agrees with that view.

“Our stance is consistent with the travel advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office,” says Nel Mooy, its head of travel proposition.

“At the moment, the FCO isn’t advising against travelling to Italy. It is asking people who are already in the regions of Lombardy, Veneto, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Piemonte and Emilia Romagna to follow the instructions of local authorities.

“For people who are preparing a trip there, it is sharing tips on how to reduce the risk of exposure. Our general stance is consistent with those.”

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So where does that leave me?

If you’re on a flight to northern Italy in the near future, it looks set to operate normally. British Airways, easyJet and Ryanair have all told the BBC that since travel advice has not changed, nor have their terms and conditions.

The Irish Department of Foreign Affairs takes a slightly different line from the UK government. It says: “Citizens are advised not to travel to affected areas.”

However, it places the onus on travellers to find out whether the area to which they are travelling is affected, advising them to “consult with your transport and accommodation providers”.

How is the travel industry coping?

Well, it’s braced for a financial shock. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) says airlines stand to lose $29.3bn (£23.7bn) of revenue this year because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Airlines in China and other parts of the Asia Pacific region are expected to absorb most of the impact, but no-one really knows how big the ultimate impact could be.

And obviously, if you and other tourists don’t visit a place on holiday, then hotel rooms are unoccupied, restaurant meals go uneaten, shops sell fewer goods and so on. Some of those businesses could go under as a result, leaving a lasting impression on the tourism industry of the future.

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