Coronavirus: Advice for travellers after Foreign Office warns against all travel

Simon Calder
Simon Calder

Don’t go abroad for at least a month: that is the advice from the Foreign Office. As more and more countries impose travel bans because of coronavirus, the government is warning against all non-essential travel, both internationally and within the UK.

British citizens who are already abroad are warned that international travel may become more difficult.

These are the key questions and answers.

What exactly has been announced – and why?

What the Foreign Office calls an “exceptional travel advisory notice” advises British citizens against all non-essential travel worldwide.

People booked to go abroad should stay at home, and those who are overseas should make arrangements to come home. The foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, told parliament on 18 March that the travel advice would apply initially for 30 days.

Is this to reduce the number of coronavirus cases?

No. The new policy is not designed to protect British travellers against coronavirus: the World Health Organisation has long warned that border restrictions are futile once person-to-person transmission within a country begins.

The UK government is seeking to limit the number of travellers who will be unwittingly trapped by the growing wave of international border closures across the world. The advice says: “The Covid-19 pandemic has led to unprecedented international border closures and other restrictions. All countries may restrict travel without notice.”

What sort of problems are travellers experiencing?

The trip I’ve just finished was a good example. It was intended to be a straightforward series of hops to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Yemen. But as a series of flight bans rolled across the region, I had to make a long overland journey across Jordan, Israel and the Sinai Desert to get to Cairo and onward to Yemen.

My trip was abruptly halted two days early when I was woken up in the middle of the night by the tour guide saying the last flight for the foreseeable future was about to leave Yemen later that day, so get to the airport.

Instead of spending that time in Cairo, I was chased out by another flight ban, which involved spending nearly £700 on a new ticket home. Along the way I have met dozens of other British travellers who have had similar problems – generally saying UK companies had been of very little use.

How many British travellers are out of the country?

Plenty of UK citizens are living and either working or retired abroad, from France and Spain to Thailand and Australia. The latest travel advice isn’t aimed at them, but at “real” travellers.

I estimate the number of holidaymakers, business travellers and those visiting friends and families at 550,000 – with a margin of error of 50,000 each way. That number is diminishing as travellers return.

What sort of travellers are they?

It’s low season, and there are likely to be very few families with school-age children. The announcement also happened on a Tuesday, which means that there will be few working-aged people on city breaks – they tend to be weekend activities. So a mix of older travellers, young backpackers on extended trips, and couples without kids taking advantage of lower prices during term time to get some cheap sunshine, winter sports or culture.

What is the advice for people who need to get home quickly?

Anyone on a package holiday should try to talk to their tour operator (travel firm). It is their legal duty to make alternative arrangements as swiftly as possible – though I have heard many accounts of this not happening as it should.

Those with flights booked who want to come back early should contact the carrier or their travel agent, if they bought through one. Again, that could be much easier said than done.

Travel insurers with 24/7 emergency call centres may be some help – though accounts suggest that they will often say that it is not an insurance issue and the travel provider is responsible.

The government has said it will not repatriate British travellers abroad, even though it did so when Thomas Cook collapsed in September 2019.

Some will arrive by car through the Channel Tunnel or on ferries, and some on Eurostar trains from Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris, but the vast majority will get home by air.

Emergency flights are still operating, and my experience is that there is space available on most aircraft at the moment. The bigger problem is some countries have simply banned either all international flights, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, or have included the UK in the list of nations whose airlines are banned.

Some British travellers won’t be going anywhere for a while. Peru has closed all its borders and introduced strict rules on movements within the country. British travellers in Peru are being told: “During the state of emergency, we advise you find secure accommodation for the confirmed period of 15 days.”

See a full list of repatriation flights here.

But won’t alternative transport be expensive?

Yes. Airlines set fares according to demand, and there have been some extreme surges in travellers needing flights. As the carriers face an uncertain future, they are clearly aiming to maximise revenue before many planes are grounded.

For example, the UK government is currently working out the possibility of a commercial flight out of Jordan, to Doha, with Qatar Airways. From there, you will need to book separate tickets to the UK. The FCO said this will be in the range of 1,599 JOD (£1,900).

What If I can’t afford it?

Family and friends may be able to transfer funds to you or buy you a ticket home. In what the Foreign Office calls “very exceptional circumstances”, the government may provide an emergency loan to help you return home.

“This is discretionary and will only be considered if you have exhausted all other methods of getting funds,” says the Foreign Office.

You must pay it back in six months and will be expected to surrender your passport until the debt is cleared.

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