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Last updated: 29 January 2021

The current picture

Travelling overseas?

The implications of the current COVID-19 pandemic are widespread.  The government has issued a statement advising against all but essential unnecessary foreign travel (see https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice). For up to date advice regarding travelling see https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/ department-for-transport.

You can only travel internationally – or within the UK – where you first have a legally permitted reason to leave home. If you do need to travel overseas (and are legally permitted to do so, for example, because it is for work), even if you are returning to a place you’ve visited before, you should look at the rules in place at your destination and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) travel advice https://www.gov.uk/foreign- travel-advice.

On Friday 8 January, the Government unveiled new measures to limit the spread of Covid-19.

The measures state that if you are coming to the UK from anywhere, whether you are a Briton or a foreign national then you will need have proof of a negative Covid test up to 72 hours before you arrive. These rules apply to anyone entering the country whether by plane, train or ferry. Anyone who doesn’t show proof of a negative test won’t be able to board their plane. As long as the test
is negative, then they can fly, but they can’t board the plane, for example, without having this evidence.

Airlines have a responsibility to make sure that people don’t fly without having evidence of the negative test. Not only will people be fined £500 for not having evidence of the negative test, but airlines will also be penalised. The national lockdown means Britons cannot travel so this shouldn’t be an immediate concern for most holidaymakers whose plans have been put on hold.

This measure comes on top of the current 10-day quarantine when returning from abroad and those consumers who do travel abroad need to be careful. Also the Government issued a warning for consumers that there are many airports around the world that don’t have testing facilities, which will delay the consumers return home.

A coalition of UK health and technical groups have started developing digital, “Vaccination Passports”, to meet the demand for proof of inoculation. Currently consumers are only given a piece of paper confirming vaccination and the Government state that they require complete evidence of the effect of vaccines on transmission before approval.

Specific arrangements exist concerning:

Wales https://gov.wales/coronavirus

Northern Ireland https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/campaigns/ coronavirus-covid-19

Scotland https://www.gov.scot/coronavirus-covid-19/

Travelling in the UK – leisure and work

Current advice from the UK Government regarding Travelling in the UK can be found at http://www.gov.uk/coronavirus

Arrangements are reviewed frequently, specifically at the end of the current lockdown (no end date confirmed yet).
Emphasis is still on working from home where possible, with regular hand washing. Keeping distanced from others and avoiding rush-hour, are also recommended, when using public transport or driving.

No-one should travel if they are:

  • experiencing any coronavirus symptoms;
  • Are self-isolating because of their own symptoms or are sharing a household or support bubble with someone who has symptoms;
  • Are clinically extremely vulnerable
  • have been advised by the NHS Test and Trace service to self-isolate.

For more information on when NOT to travel, see the Government guidance here: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/coronavirus-covid-19-safer-travel-guidance-for-passengers

Local lockdown areas

A national lockdown is currently in place.

See - https://www.gov.uk/guidance/national-lockdown-stay- at-home#summary-what-you-can-and-cannot-do-during-the-national-lockdown
 
A national lockdown means ‘stay at home’ apart from in a few specific circumstances which are defined in the government’s guidance and the legislation which underpins it. These measures are necessary to protect the NHS and save lives.

Face coverings on public transport

Safer travel guidance for passengers has been introduced, which includes the legal requirement (from 15th June 2020) for face coverings to be worn when using public transport.

This includes taxis and private hire vehicles, buses and coaches, trains and trams, ferries, hovercraft and aircraft in England: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/coronavirus-covid-19-safer-travel-guidance-for-passengers

It includes tips on planning your trip, exemptions to the requirements (for young children, officials etc.) and a clear message about handwashing/sanitising at the end of the journey.

In Wales https://www.gov.wales/face-coverings-guidance-public

In Northern Ireland https://www.publichealth.hscni.net/covid-19-coronavirus/ covid-19-information-public#face-coverings

In Scotland, face coverings in shops and on public transport are required. https://www.gov.scot/publications/coronavirus-covid-19- public-use-of-face-coverings/

Package Holiday providers and retailers – what does the law say?

Legislation exists that sets out the responsibilities of package holiday providers and travel agents with regard to customer contracts, cancellation and compensation.  These measures are in place to protect consumers and provide a level playing field for businesses.

For more information on this, see our In Depth Guide on Package travel & holidays https://www.businesscompanion.info/ focus/practical-holiday-law.

For travel, accommodation and events which do not constitute a ‘package,’ other legislation exists to protect the rights of consumers and in most cases will entitle them to a refund for cancelled events or accommodation. For more information see our In Depth Guide on the supply of services https://www.businesscompanion.info/en/quick-guides/services/the-supply-of-services

These unprecedented times have so far shown that pragmatism, communication and trust have important roles to play when the strict application of legislation may not be appropriate.

What should I be doing for my customers and the holidays they’ve booked?

With the above in mind, advice from Trading Standards for the travel sector is to:

Keep communicating with your customers about the steps you are taking now and those you intend to take in the future.  Be as honest and as accurate as possible.  If you don’t have all the answers, say so.

Appeal to your customers for patience while you do everything you can to resolve their concerns – most people understand that businesses are facing huge pressures on services and finances and that they might have to wait a little longer.

Deal with the most imminent travel plans first because the situation changes daily.  Let your customers know that this is what you are doing, and why.

Advise customers to check their travel insurance cover, in case they need to access it.

Keep in contact with reliable sources of information, such as via your trade association or Primary Authority partner (if you have one) https://www.gov.uk/guidance/local-regulation-primary-authority.  

The ABTA website provides freely accessible guidance for industry and consumers on refunds, with more detailed support accessible by members only  https://www.abta.com/news/coronavirus-outbreak

For package holidays (including cruises)

Keep a close eye on the Government’s advice and contact customers to advise that travel plans have been cancelled, prioritising those with the most imminent travel plans.

The Package Travel and Linked Travel Arrangements Regulations 2018 (‘PTRs’) still apply. The Regulations state that a refund should be provided to the traveller if their package holiday is cancelled. If the traveller is happy to accept a re-booking or a Refund Credit Note (RCN) this would be an alternative (as long as the RCN is ATOL protected for flight-inclusive packages or for non-flight packages, Bonding, insurance or Trust Account protection is provided).

Refund credit notes

On 18th July 2020 the Government announced enhanced protections for passengers by backing the ATOL protection scheme. This means that passengers who choose refund credit notes are covered for cancellations as a result of COVID-19, even if the travel provider later collapses.

The changes also mean for those with ATOL-protected holidays that have already been cancelled, these customers can choose between a refund or a fully-protected refund credit note for use at a later date.

The Government protections for package holidays including a flight apply to refund credit notes issued between 10th March 2020 and31st March 2021.  All valid refund credit notes issued up to 31 March 2021 will benefit from ATOL protection until 30 September 2021, when government backing for their ATOL protection will cease.

Consumers continue to remain entitled to a cash refund until 30 September 2021 should they not wish to accept RCNs.

Advice from the Competition and Marketing Authority (CMA)

CMA advice is that a credit note, re-booking or re-scheduling may be offered as an alternative to a refund, but a refund should still be an option that is just as clearly and easily available.  Any restrictions that apply to credits, rebooking or re-scheduling, such as the period in which credits must be used or services re-booked, must also be fair and made clear to consumers.

If refunds are taking longer due to the high number being processed, let your customers know and try to complete the refund within a reasonable time.

The latest CMA advice is here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/cma-to-investigate-concerns-about-cancellation-policies-during-the-coronavirus-covid-19-pandemic

What if a customer doesn’t want to travel once restrictions are lifted?

If the government declares it is safe to travel, but a customer no longer wishes to go, there is no obligation for you to offer a refund and normal cancellation charges may apply, according to your terms and conditions.

It is quite likely that the extraordinary circumstances of the time may see the introduction of new and more empathetic cancellation outcomes by responsible businesses operating in the sector.  Equally, customers who have lost out may be more discerning about cancellation terms and conditions when booking future trips.

Flights

For flight cancellations the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) website gives guidance on EU Regulation EC261 which applies to flight cancellations, namely the option of a full refund or alternative flights.
However, alternative flights are not possible to arrange at the current time. https://www.caa.co.uk/ COVID-19/

Compensation for flight cancellations made within 14 days of the departure date would normally be paid to consumers under EC261. However, the current COVID-19 crisis may be deemed ‘extraordinary circumstances’ and therefore this may not apply where the Government has advised against travel.

Travel insurance and coronavirus

Some travel insurance policies bought before 1 March 2020 did not have a pandemic as an exclusion, which is good news for those affected, enabling them to make a claim on their insurance, if all else fails.  

Financial Conduct Authority advice on travel insurance is here:  https://www.fca.org.uk/consumers/insurance-and-coronavirus

Other events and UK accommodation

Similarly, for other UK travel, accommodation and events, the above advice applies and communication with consumers is key.

For events which have been cancelled due to the restrictions on social gatherings, consumers should be offered a refund or a credit note if acceptable.

If the event is to be re-scheduled, the consumer’s booking will stand for the re-arranged date, however, if the consumer cannot make that date they should be offered a refund.

A final note

Legally, there is a difference between a ‘refund credit note’ and a voucher – see ABTA’s website for more information

Remember that you should not seek payment for a service you know you’ll be unable to provide.  But where there’s a reasonable expectation that travel plans will happen, then customers should continue to make payments towards it.

The European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) became obsolete from 1 January 2021 and will only remain valid until the expiry date on the card. The Government has launched a free Global Health Insurance Card, which will provide equivalent healthcare protection with an intention to extend this reciprocal healthcare beyond Europe.

The travel industry continues to lobby government for financial support and changes to legislation that it believes are needed to sustain the sector for the future.

Useful sources of information

https://www.abta.com/news/abta-provides-further-industry-and-customer-guidance-refunds ABTA industry and customer guidance on refunds

https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/consumer/holiday-cancellations-and-compensation/claim-compensation-for-a-holiday/

Civil advice regarding refunds

https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/cma-covid-19-response

CMA Coronavirus (C-19)

https://www.financial-ombudsman.org.uk/consumers/how-to-complain

Financial Ombudsman Service

https://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/coronavirus-simon-calder-travel-questions-answered-live-a9409711.html

Simon Calder travel Q&A
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