As the coronavirus spreads across Europe, the Middle East and Asia, Britons are scrambling to change their travel plans – with varying levels of success.
“We’re feeling very frustrated and fed-up,” said a woman from Surrey, who preferred not to be named, and whose family had booked a “holiday of a lifetime” in Hong Kong, Thailand and Laos this Easter.
Deciding they did not want to expose themselves to the risk of being taken ill, or a fortnight in quarantine upon their return, they have cancelled their trip.
“We’ve probably lost £2,000 in internal flights and accommodation in Asia,” she said. “When we first spoke to our travel agent about the coronavirus they were very dismissive about it, saying people are in China still doing trips, but do you really want to spend three weeks with a face mask on?”
The Foreign Office (FCO) has so far held back from advising against essential travel in Asia, besides mainland China, and this is hampering attempts to be reimbursed by people who cancelled holidays.
How can I protect myself from the coronavirus outbreak?
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.
Clive Paul, a 71-year-old retiree, cancelled his holiday to Singapore and Australia on Monday amid intensified news coverage about the outbreak. He is set to lose about £2,500.
“My insurance company will not refund anything unless the FCO tells tourists not to enter the country,” he said.
“I haven’t got money to throw away but my wife and I had to make a decision. There’s probably a very small risk flying out there but who knows. Better to be safe than sorry. It’s a long flight, we don’t want to risk it. I’m gutted.”
Michael Green, from Rossendale in Lancashire, got about halfway through his holiday before it was cut short.
He was on the Majestic Princess cruise ship having a “wonderful time” along the coast of Australia with his wife Pamela for their 40th wedding anniversary, before they were told the voyage would end in Perth.
“We should be on that same ship in the Indian Ocean on the way to Penang,” he said. “They’ve given us a 50% refund and a 50% discount on an equivalent trip, but it virtually wrecked our holiday which we have spent 18 months saving for and planning.”
Recent graduate Ludovic Gardner, 21, worked at Portsmouth city council to pay for six months travelling.
Along with five friends, he had booked a trip from Moscow along the trans-Mongolian railway to Beijing and Shanghai and then planned to go to Tokyo.
“We had all our accommodation and flights to Japan booked, but because of restrictions placed on those who have been to China it’s now all up in the air,” he said.
“We cancelled our visit to China and flights to Japan, but our refund from Peach Aviation can only be spent on flights from China, so it’s not really a refund at all.”
Prof Loughlin Sweeney, who has been carrying out research in the UK, said he had no choice but to return to South Korea, where he lives and works.
“The university semester in Korea will now be starting two weeks late, and some of our students will be quarantined,” he said.
‘Come back soon’: coronavirus wreaks havoc on global tourism hotspots
En route back to his home in Seoul he will be attempting to minimise contact with the “outside world” since he is acutely aware he is running a “possibly unnecessary risk by travelling back into an infection zone” – though Sweeney’s colleagues in Korea assure him they are safe.
“The only scary thing about it is what we don’t yet know about the virus,” he said. “Hopefully the fatality rate won’t climb any higher.”
Karisa Lundberg, 31, an American who lives in London, is urging people to reclaim a sense of perspective. On Friday she is heading to Verona, in northern Italy, about an hour’s drive from the centres of the coronavirus outbreaks in the country, for her partner’s birthday.
“Your chance of running into the 0.0007% of the local population who have contracted the virus is incredibly slim,” she said. “I’m more likely to be hit by a bus outside than contracting coronavirus.”
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