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

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

The impact of the coronavirus is showing no sign of abating, with the Chinese authorities placing more than a dozen cities on lockdown, airlines cancelling flights and the UK Foreign Office tightening 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 3,000, according to estimates, with the Chinese city of Wuhan, in the Hubei Province, designated as the epicentre. 

The Foreign Office (FCO) on Tuesday updated its travel guidance to advise against all but essential travel to China and all 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?

It is now advising against all but essential travel to China, excluding Hong Kong and Macao, and all travel to Hubei Province, of which Wuhan is the capital.

"The Chinese government continue to impose further restrictions on movement within China in response to the coronavirus outbreak," it said. "It may become harder over the coming weeks for those who wish to leave China to do so. If you feel that you may want to leave China soon, you should consider making plans to do so before any further restrictions may be imposed."

foreign office advice china

“On 23 January the Wuhan authorities closed all transport hubs including airports, railway and bus stations. 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."

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?

British Airways on Wednesday said it was suspending flights to and from Beijing and Shanghai "until Friday, January 31, while we assess the situaiton". The airline said flights to Hong Kong are not affected, and is offering anyone travelling up to February 23 the chance to rebook or request a refund.

Virgin Atlantic, which flies to Hong Kong and Shanghai, said it is monitoring the situaiton but has not yet cancelled flights. It, too, is offering customers a chance to rebook, for travel up until February 29. 

If you are in any doubt as to whether the coronavirus will affect your trip, contact your airline or tour operator - as the Foreign Office has now advised against travel to China, your tour operator or airline is likely to offer your refunds or alternative trips to avoid affected areas. Travellers flying via China or Hong Kong or destinations in south-east Asia or Australia should check if their flights are affected. 

The FCO says travellers should be aware that any trip to China will be affected. 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, as are Cathay Pacific and Qantas. 

Wendy Wu Tours, which runs trips to Asia, said it was monitoring the situation, but that it expected travel plans to China beyond February to operate as normal. 

"The current travel advice is relevant for travel to China now, i.e in the next few days, and is changing on a daily basis," it said. "We are fully expecting the travel advice to be revised again shortly and will update as soon as this information changes."

Kerry Golds, the managing director of Abercrombie and Kent, said the tour operator was hopeful the issue could be resolved before the spring travel seasons begins. 

"For clients with immediate departures to China we’re offering them the opportunity to postpone, cancel or rebook to a new destination free of charge," she said. "For guests departing in the coming months we will discuss options with them as the situation evolves."

Abta, the UK travel association, said customers due to travel should speak to their travel provider.  

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, including the US and the UK, have introduced screening measures and airlines have begun steps to limit the impact to its staff and customers.

The virus has continued to spread internationally, with the US and Canada reporting cases. Singapore has five while Nepal has identified its first, Thailand its eighth and Cambodia has one. Sri Lanka confirmed its first case of the virus on Monday. Elsewhere in Asia, Taiwan has uncovered four cases so far, South Korean media reported the country's forth case, and Vietnam confirmed two cases. Malaysia and Japan have both confirmed four cases.

Australia has confirmed it has five confirmed cases of the virus.

In Europe, France has confirmed three cases while Germany has recorded one case so far.

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. 

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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