UK travel ban: What does the new Foreign Office advice mean for holidaymakers?

'The situation is changing rapidly. Travellers could face severe disruption and be unable to return to the UK'

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Tuesday 07 April 2020 08:48
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“The Foreign Office indefinitely advises against all non-essential global travel” – that was the blunt warning issued at the weekend.

This was an extension to the previous advice, which was due to end 16 April.

The alert has caused consternation for industry and confusion among holidaymakers, especially those with bookings for the next few months.

These are the key questions and answers.

What exactly has changed?

In response to the coronavirus crisis, the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, warned on 17 March against all but essential travel anywhere in the world.

The initial warning was for 30 days, expiring on 16 April.

That gave certainty to holiday companies who, with a very few exceptions, do not run trips against government advice. It also meant that travellers who had trips booked over the Easter holidays knew they would not be going ahead.

Travel firms – whose business model has changed in the past month from a sending people abroad to handing out refunds in bulk – could at least work with a target date.

On 23 March, the Foreign Office separately warned all British short-term visitors currently abroad to head home.

There had been expectations that the Foreign Office would extend the “no-go” advice by between two weeks or one month.

Instead, the government chose to issue a tweet saying simply: “We advise against all non-essential travel. Indefinitely.

“The situation is changing rapidly. Travellers could face severe disruption and be unable to return to the UK.”

Does “indefinitely” mean “forever”?

Certainly not: there is an expectation that restrictions will be eased in time and that holidays abroad will resume.

But leading figures in the travel industry are appalled at the move.

One said: “It looks absolutely mad to me. Sure, we have to have ‘rolling’ cancellations for some weeks or possibly months.

“I had been expecting Foreign Office to extend any day now. But to go to ‘indefinite’ just injects a huge dose of uncertainty into what was already an almost unmanageable situation.

“Quite reasonably holidaymakers with bookings for May, June and into July are going to be queueing up for refunds.”

How does the Foreign Office respond?

A spokesperson said: “Our first priority is keeping British nationals safe and we keep our travel advice under constant review.”

I have a future holiday booked. What are my rights?

The “indefinite” advice does neither side any favours. The Foreign Office has created a bizarre situation whereby holidaymakers booked to travel in late April and into May can legitimately ask for a refund because their trip appears, in all likelihood, to be cancelled.

Yet conversely, travel firms can reasonably reject such applications for now because the no-go warning could theoretically be lifted at any moment.

So what happens next?

It is fair to assume that all holidays up to 16 April should have been cancelled as a result of the initial Foreign Office advice. Therefore holidaymakers are entitled to a full refund within two weeks, under the Package Travel Regulations.

Abta, the travel association, is urging customers to help the struggling industry by accepting a “refund credit note,” backed by either Abta or Atol as appropriate, which effectively gives firms until the end of July to hand back cash.

From late April onwards, individual companies will now start instigating “rolling cancellations”: basically saying, “We won’t be running any holidays before this date” – which may be 1 May, 1 June or any other day they choose. Understandably they will be in no hurry to do this, because as soon as they cancel a holiday it triggers the 14-day full refund obligation.

As a result, travellers booked from 17 April onwards may find their holiday company cancels just a few days before departure.

I have booked a flight on its own. What are my rights to cancel for a full refund?

None, if the flight goes ahead. Airlines are not bound by the same obligations as holiday companies. They can continue to operate, and sell tickets, to any destination covered by a Foreign Office no-go warning. Which, at the moment, is everywhere.

In practice, existing bookings for the next month or so are extremely likely to be cancelled, giving you the right to a full cash refund within a week. In the unlikely event that your flight goes ahead, the airline is very likely to offer postponement or a voucher.

What are the insurance implications?

If you wisely took out insurance at the same time as booking your trip, it technically remains in force. The policy will not cover any holiday abroad against government advice, but since (again, in theory) that could be lifted any day, it will sit ready to come into effect if your trip goes and you go.

For new policies: it is difficult to say because these are uncharted circumstances. While I caution against making new travel bookings amid such uncertainty, it is perfectly understandable that people will want a future holiday to look forward to. Anyone who chooses to should take out travel insurance.

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