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Italy travel advice: can you cancel over coronavirus?

Rupert Jones and Miles Brignall
Photograph: Manuel Silvestri/Reuters

As the coronavirus continues to spread around the world, with Italy trying to contain what is now the worst outbreak in Europe, many people with overseas trips booked are becoming increasingly concerned.

Some will be contemplating cancelling, while others will want to know what their consumer rights are.

I have a trip to Italy booked. Can I get my money back?

About 3 million people from the UK visit Italy every year, and the situation regarding the country is moving fast. The Italian authorities implemented a series of measures on 22 February, and the latest reported coronavirus death toll there had risen to seven, with the number of confirmed cases at 229.

The World Health Organization is recommending that people take simple precautions to reduce exposure to and transmission of the Wuhan coronavirus, for which there is no specific cure or vaccine.

The UN agency advises people to:

  • Frequently wash their hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or warm water and soap
  • Cover their mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue when sneezing or coughing
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever or cough
  • Seek early medical help if they have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, and share their travel history with healthcare providers
  • Avoid direct, unprotected contact with live animals and surfaces in contact with animals when visiting live markets in affected areas
  • Avoid eating raw or undercooked animal products and exercise care when handling raw meat, milk or animal organs to avoid cross-contamination with uncooked foods.

Despite a surge in sales of face masks in the aftermath of the outbreak of the coronavirus outbreak, experts are divided over whether they can prevent transmission and infection. There is some evidence to suggest that masks can help prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions, given the large number of times people touch their faces. The consensus appears to be that wearing a mask can limit – but not eliminate – the risks, provided they are used correctly.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has advised UK nationals to leave China where possible. It is also warning that travellers from Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, Malaysia, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand who develop symptoms of cough or fever or shortness of breath within 14 days of returning the UK should contact the NHS by phone.

Justin McCurry

On insurance and refunds, the bottom line is that it very much depends on what the UK government is officially advising. The Association of British Insurers (ABI) said travel insurance was not designed to cover “disinclination to travel” where the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advice had not changed to advise against travel.

Despite telling Britons returning from northern Italy to self-isolate if they develop coronavirus symptoms, the FCO has not advised against travel to the country.

The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said people with flu-like symptoms who have been north of Pisa are asked to stay at home for 14 days.

If the government subsequently does advise against all but essential travel to any part of Italy, most if not all tour operators and airlines will almost certainly cancel immediate trips and offer full refunds.

At that point, many insurance policies will cover non-refundable travel costs such as hotels if the policyholder has been unable to reclaim these from the travel firm.

If you were due to travel to an area of Italy that is currently in lockdown, you could reasonably argue that your holiday cannot go ahead and claim on your travel insurance. Insurers have said they will look at claims on a case-by-case basis.

However, those choosing to cancel trips to other areas of Italy are unlikely to be covered by their travel insurance – unless the FCO advises against travel to the country.

The same advice applies to Tenerife and Croatia, where the first cases were reported overnight.

What are insurers and travel companies saying regarding Italy?

The speed of the developments appears to have caught firms by surprise, with many scrambling to clarify their position.

Nel Mooy, the head of travel proposition at Axa, one of the biggest underwriters of travel policies in the UK, said: “Our stance is consistent with the travel advice from the FCO. 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 preparing a trip there, it is sharing tips on how to reduce the risk of exposure. Our general stance is consistent with those.”

But she added that Axa was also taking a pragmatic approach. “If a customer can demonstrate specific circumstances that require them to cancel their trip, they should in the first instance contact their airline or tour operator, and then we will of course consider their claim. We highly recommend, though, that they get in touch with us before their planned departure date.”

So the best advice…

Is to check the up-to-date guidance on the Foreign Office website, and regularly check the website of your tour operator/airline.

For example, Cathay Pacific has announced a list of destinations subject to “temporary suspension” until 28 March, which includes Rome and Milan. It says that those whose journeys are affected will receive an email with information on alternative flight arrangements.

I was due to go to China next week/month. Will I get my money back?

Yes, almost certainly. The fact that the Foreign Office has advised against all but essential travel to the whole of mainland China (and all travel to Hubei) makes things easier.

British Airways has cancelled all its flights to Beijing and Shanghai until 17 April. Beyond that date, it says it is continuing to review the situation and will provide regular updates.

If you had booked an independent trip, your flight should be refundable. Other big losses should be reclaimable from your travel insurer, assuming you bought your cover before the outbreak unfolded.

Generally, insurers will only pay out provided you bought the cover before the virus hit the headlines and became a “known” factor.

If I ignore any government advice, will my travel insurance still cover me?

Anyone travelling to a country or region against government advice risks invalidating their travel insurance, said the ABI.