Coronavirus: is it safe to travel and can I cancel my trip?

Hugh Morris
Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus - © Andrea Rapisarda

The spectre of the coronavirus is spreading as the Chinese authorities place 18 cities on lockdown, airports ramp up quarantine controls and the UK Foreign Office tightens its restrictions on travel to the Far East.

The mystery disease outbreak has led to the deaths of at least 106 people and infected about nearly 3,000, according to estimates, with the Chinese city of Wuhan, in the Hubei Province, designated as the epicentre. 

The Foreign Office (FCO) on Monday updated its travel guidance to advise against all but essential travel to Hubei Province "due to the ongoing novel coronavirus outbreak".

Below we detail the travel situation in and out of China and where else has been affected.

What has the Foreign Office said?

The FCO updated its guidance on January 22 warning against all but essential travel to Wuhan City, the capital of Central China’s Hubei province. This has now been changed to "all travel" and extended to the province as a whole.

“On 23 January the Wuhan authorities closed all transport hubs including airports, railway and bus stations," it said. "Some shops and amenities are closed; public events have been cancelled and Chinese authorities have advised the public to avoid crowds. Travel restrictions are also in place in other cities in Hubei Province."

foreign office advice china

It advised anyone in the province to comply with the screening measures put in place by local authorities, adding that anyone present needs assistance should contact the Foreign Office on +86 (0)10 8529 6600. The UK Government is planning to repatriate any British nationals in the region.  

Public Health England (PHE) says you should maintain good hand, respiratory and personal hygiene and avoid visiting animal and bird markets or people who are ill with respiratory symptoms. 

The Foreign Office has also extended its guidance to anyone present in other parts of China, detailing how the plans of the local authorities could impact British nationals. 

"These include temperature checks at transport hubs and other locations; quarantine arrangements for travel between different parts of the country; and restrictions on travel between and within cities," it said. "Medical facilities across the country are under significant pressure. Some are not accepting patients and others have long queues. Some businesses have closed."

“Individuals should seek medical attention if they develop respiratory symptoms within 14 days of visiting Wuhan, either in China or on their return to the UK,” it adds. “They should phone ahead before attending any health services and mention their recent travel to the city.”

China has placed cities on lockdown Credit: bloomberg

What should I do if my holiday is affected?

Contact your airline or tour operator if concerned - as the Foreign Office has now advised against travel, your tour operator or airline is likely to offer your refunds or alternative trips to avoid affected areas.

The FCO says travellers should be aware that any trip to China will be affected. "The Chinese authorities react quickly to any outbreaks of any infectious disease, including enforcing quarantine for those showing symptoms," it said. 

In Chinese government has closed a majority of tourist attractions and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism has suspended all tour group activities. 

Trips to areas on the periphery, like, for example, Japan, are not covered by the FCO advice and therefore you would likely incur a charge should you wish to cancel. The FCO has, however, added advice about the virus to a number of its pages, including Japan, Hong Kong, and even as far afield as Australia.

Chinese airlines, China Southern, China Eastern and China Air, are allowing passengers to cancel and reschedule flights free of charge. British Airways, too, which flies to China is offering passengers due to travel before February 23 the option of rebooking or refunds. 

Wendy Wu Tours, which runs trips to Asia, said it was monitoring the situation, but that the Chinese New Year was not a busy period for international visitors. 

"The travel advice to China is to avoid all travel to Hubei Province. Currently some sightseeing attractions are temporarily closed until February 2, owing to the extended New Year celebrations," it said in a statement. "Travel to all other areas in China remains unaffected. If you are travelling with us to China during February, we will contact you if there are any changes to your travel plans. Travel to China beyond February is currently planned to operate as normal. Our passengers’ health and wellbeing is always our top priority."

Abta, the UK travel association, said it was monitoring the situation. 

The Chinese government scrambled to put emergency measures in place ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday, which began last week and has now extended the holiday to February 2 to discourage travel. A number of business have told employees to work from home. 

Are other parts of the world affected?

While most people affected are in China, cases in this fast-moving outbreak have now been found in the United States, France, Australia, Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea, Taiwan, Macau, Japan and the Philippines. Fourteen people are being tested in the United Kingdom.

A number of airports and airlines have begun steps to limit the impact to its staff and customers.

Hong Kong, which has had confirmed cases of the Wuhan virus, has turned two holiday camps including a former British military barracks, into quarantine zones for people who may have come into contact with carriers. The Foreign Office said anyone visiting Hong Kong should comply with any additional screening measures put in place by authorities. 

Changi Airport in Singapore said it was increasing surveillance on all passengers from China, while Japan, India and Indonesia have all taken measures. Screening has also been introduced at airports in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles. 

The European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) says "further global spread is likely" and there is a "moderate" likelihood of further cases in the Europe Union. 

Three airports in the EU have direct flight connections to Wuhan – including London Heathrow - though flights have been suspended.  

What are the symptoms of the new coronavirus?

According to the WHO, the new coronavirus causes a fever, fatigue, sore throat and dry cough in the early stages of the disease. As the illness progresses, patients may experience difficulty breathing. 

But these symptoms – similar to many other respiratory diseases – are what make it so difficult to control.

And symptoms of coronavirus may not manifest until up to a week after contracting the virus, Dr Adam Kucharski, a professor at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine told Sky News. Most symptoms begin to appear between three and six days after infection.

There is also emerging evidence, published in The Lancet, that the virus can be spread by asymptomatic people - which would make it much more difficult to contain. 

Dr Kucharski also confirmed that elderly people with pre-existing health conditions are at greater risk of the virus, but said that the exact risk to younger people in good health is not known.

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