The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has advised against all-but-essential travel to China and is urging UK citizens to leave the country, while several airlines have suspended flights and tour operators are cancelling trips. Here’s what UK travellers on current trips, or booked on future trips, need to know.
On 28 January, the FCO upgraded its advice to urge against all-but-essential travel to mainland China (excluding Hong Kong and Macau). It continues to advise against all travel to Hubei province, the epicentre of the Coronavirus outbreak. Given the evolving situation, travellers should continue to check the latest FCO advice before travelling.
For UK citizens currently in China, FCO advice is to leave as soon as possible – as it is likely to become harder to access departure options in coming weeks. In a statement on Tuesday, foreign secretary Dominic Raab said: “The safety and security of British people will always be our top priority. As such, we now advise British nationals in China to leave the country if they can, to minimise their risk of exposure to the virus. Where there are still British nationals in Hubei province who wish to be evacuated, we will continue to work around the clock to facilitate this. ”
UK operators British Airways and Virgin Atlantic have suspended flights to and from mainland China, as have other airlines, including Air France, Delta, United, American Airlines, Qatar Airways and Oman Air. Others are operating with reduced frequency. Commercial airlines still operating flights to the UK include Air China, Aeroflot and Emirates.
As part of government-imposed restrictions on movement within China some provincial highways and inter-city high-speed rail lines have been closed, and there is tighter control on entry and exit to villages and townships across the country, and restrictions on movement within some cities and municipalities, including Chongqing.
January and February are considered low season for UK visitors to China, with the majority of UK tour operators we asked saying they either don’t have customers in the country or have already helped people fly home, or reroute trips. Tour operators have said they are cancelling trips due to depart in the next few months and are offering refunds, alternative dates or rerouting.
Wendy Wu Tours, one of the UK’s leading specialist tour operators to China, said it did not have any customers in China, and anyone due to travel in February had been contacted with alternative options. Those travelling between March and June have the option to choose a later date or an alternative tour, without an amendment fee – although cancellation fees apply. The company is confident there will not be any long-term impact on business, after seeing increased interest after the 2002–04 Sars outbreak.
Asia specialist the Dragon Trip, which launched in 2011 offering group holidays in China, said it doesn’thave any clients in China at the moment, and trips departing before 15 April have been cancelled, with a full refund, or the opportunity to change to a later date or alternative location. Japan and South Korea are proving popular alternatives. The company is confident that once the virus is under control and the FCO downgrades advice, tourism will bounce back.
G Adventures has cancelled all departures to China up to and including 31 March, giving travellers the option to postpone, transfer to an alterative tour, or cancel and receive a full refund. Trailfinders has cancelled all trips until 30 April, is supporting those already in the country and is offering anyone with tours already booked alternative tours without amendment fees. Other tour operators, including Rickshaw and STA, advise travellers with trips booked to contact them for options to reroute on a case-by-case basis.
In instances where tour operators do not offer a full refund, some travel policies may cover cancellation or curtailment – but many exclude outbreaks of viruses. However, the large number of cancelled flights, combined with restrictions in and out of affected areas, means some travel policies could still pay out.
Cover is likely to depend on the date the policy was activated. If visitors booked and travelled to China before the virus became a “known event”, it is likely they are still covered for medical expenses, although not all insurers will cover against cutting a trip short. Some insurers are referencing 21 January as the day it became a known event as this was the day China confirmed human-to-human transmission. Other insurers have said that cover will still be valid for any trips booked and taken up to the day after the FCO changed its advice (28 January).
Direct Line says cancellation or curtailment of a trip will be covered for anyone travelling (or currently in China) in the next 28 days, if they booked before 29 January. Those wanting to continue their holiday would be covered for medical expenses subject to standard T&Cs.
Alpha Insurance has also said that any holidaymakers currently in China will continue to be covered, as long as they had arrived before the FCO advice changed. If people want to return early, it suggests contacting tour operators and travel agents for assistance and refunds in the first instance, but says if a trip was booked before the FCO advice changed, travellers will be covered for curtailment and helped with additional costs of returning home early. If travellers decide to change dates or routes for future trips to China, Alpha will amend policies without a fee.
Similarly, Allianz Partners suggests contacting travel providers and airlines to obtain a refund in the first instance. Otherwise, travellers should check the T&Cs of their policy for travel and transport cancellation cover, which varies between policies. As the World Health Organisation has not officially called the outbreak an epidemic or pandemic, it said most of its policies would not cover for curtailment. In support of the FCO advice, fees will be waived for changing the date or location of future single-trip policies and refunds issued for cancelling a future policy.