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Last updated: 24 June 2020
The implications of the current COVID-19 pandemic are widespread. The Government has issued a statement advising against all unnecessary foreign travel https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice
For travel in the UK, the Government asks that everyone stay at home as much as possible.
Safer travel guidance for passengers has been introduced, which includes the new legal requirement (from 15th June) for face coverings to be worn when using public transport. This includes taxis and private hire vehicles, 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, Northern Ireland and Scotland the wearing of a face covering is recommended on public transport.
As lockdown restrictions lift and more people return to work, journeys involving public transport, car sharing and private cars will become more commonplace again. The guidance above includes guidance on this and it promotes walking, cycling and solo vehicle use where possible.
These arrangements are for the foreseeable future. However, they could also be removed at any time.
As lockdown arrangements continue, businesses and their consumers face new challenges.
The travel sector is no exception – in fact, it is one of the most severely disrupted.
Legislation exists that sets out the responsibilities of holiday providers and retailers 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 and holidays https://www.businesscompanion.info/en/quick-guides/services/package-travel-and-holidays
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.
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/abta-provides-further-industry-and-customer-guidance-refunds
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.
Legally, there is a difference between a ‘refund credit note’ and a voucher – see ABTA’s website for more information.
To embed appropriate alternatives, it is likely that a change to legislation will be required, which could take time. This is something which other EU countries have already started to consider, in order to support businesses in the sector and to protect customers.
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.
Useful sources of information
Civil advice regarding refunds
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