Coronavirus: Foreign Office advice over Italy confuses British holidaymakers

FCO updates advice after saying travel to Lombardy largely safe despite mass quarantine

The Foreign Office faced a backlash on Sunday over its lack of clear advice for British people with holidays booked in northern Italy and those currently in quarantine as a result of the region’s escalating coronavirus crisis.

Hours after a decree was approved to lock down the Lombardy region, the department was still advising that it was safe to travel anywhere in Italy except for 11 towns where the outbreak originated.

The advice was updated later on Sunday to warn against “all but essential” travel to the whole Lombardy region, including its capital, Milan, as well as areas of Emilia Romagna, Marche, Piedmont and Veneto, including Venice.

British holidaymakers had been left confused about whether they could still go to Lombardy and whether those already there could find themselves trapped in the quarantine zone.

In the updated advice, the Foreign Office urged travellers to check flight details with airlines and said there were no restrictions on people leaving Italy. At about 8pm, the Department of Health advice about who should self-isolate for 14 days on their return was updated to include all those who had been to the locked-down area, rather than just the original 11 affected towns.

Airlines servicing the region follow Foreign Office advice. Late on Sunday night budget airline easyJet announced that it was cancelling some flights to and from areas of Italy affected by the lockdown.

A spokesperson said easyJet, “in common with a number of other airlines”, was reviewing its flying programme to Milan Malpensa, Milan Linate, Venice and Verona until 3 April. The number of flights is expected to continue to decrease until then.

The airline said affected passengers would be informed of cancellations by email and text message, and would be offered a full refund or a change of flight.

However, flights on other airlines were still being advertised after the updated advice was published. Return flights to Milan on some budget airlines were advertised at less than £40 on some aggregator websites. It means some holidaymakers have been left not knowing whether they can claim compensation from their insurance companies if they want to cancel.

Italy’s lockdown plan emerged on Saturday night as the country continues to grapple with the worst coronavirus outbreak in Europe, which has killed 366 people and infected at least 7,375. It was put into effect on Sunday afternoon.

Labour and the Lib Dems called on the Foreign Office to clear up confusion and worry among British travellers.

Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, said: “Since the very start of the coronavirus outbreak, the Foreign Office have been consistently behind the curve in terms of issuing up to date travel and evacuation advice to keep British nationals safe in the highest-risk countries, and we are now in the alarming position where — for unexplained reasons — they appear to be taking a more relaxed attitude than the countries concerned.

“Dominic Raab needs to get a grip of this crisis, and pull out all the stops to keep our people safe.”

Alistair Carmichael, the Lib Dem foreign affairs spokesman, also called on the Foreign Office to give clearer advice to people travelling to or trapped in Italy. He said: “People are increasingly worried about the spread of coronavirus and the government must be providing informed and accurate guidance, especially up-to-date travel advice to all those who could be affected.”

Those arriving in the quarantined region in Italy — or planning to travel back — said they had been given no guidance.

Crew members of one of the first British Airways flights to depart from Lombardy after the region announced the plans for a lockdown were seen wearing masks onboard, but took them off 15 minutes after take-off.

Those onboard included Ben Roeves, who had been able to change his British Airways flight in order to come back to the UK earlier than his scheduled flight later on Sunday after seeing the news about the lockdown of Lombardy.

At Milan Linate airport, he said, he had seen more airport staff, security and military than passengers — although the numbers on the security front were no more than normal in comparison with other trips. After landing at London Heathrow, he disembarked at the gate and joined the normal flow of passengers from other flights.

British Airways has been approached for comment.

Vaughan and Richard Bellamy-Williams, aged 40 and 55, arrived in Milan by train from Paris on Saturday night in the latest leg of their abridged “Phileas Fogg” tour around Europe. They had just checked in at their hotel as information about the Lombardy-wide quarantine emerged on social media.

“The trip is now blown, which is a bit of shame,” Vaughan Bellamy-Williams said. “The train was pretty much empty from the French-Italian border. They must have thought we were the only ones mad enough to go to Milan.”

The pair were due to travel to the southern Italian town of Bari but have decided to turn back home to London. They have booked a British Airways flight for 8pm on Sunday, which their insurer has said it will cover. Milan remains calm but they feared potential unrest and food shortages, they said.

“We both take daily medication and its not a good environment to be enjoying a relaxing holiday,” he said. “We will have to self-quarantine for two weeks but I would rather do that in my own home.”

Language teacher Adam Preston, from Scotland, was at a pub with two colleagues in the northern Italian town of Romano di Lombardia on Saturday night when the announcement of the decree appeared on the television.

“We saw the word ‘quarantine’ but wondered exactly what that meant in practice. I suppose I hoped the headline was hyperbolic,” the 34-year-old said. “I am still waiting to see what it means — if I can just take my British passport and get on a plane.”

Preston said that the announcement does not yet appear to have had much effect in the town of roughly 20,000 people.

“Gyms are closed, swimming pools are closed. Supermarkets are kind of bare — people are bulk-buying,” he added.

For now he plans to remain in place and decide tomorrow whether he will try to journey home. His school is still open but was closed for a fortnight last month.


Aaron Walawalkar, Rowena Mason, Ben Quinn, Jamie Grierson and Sam Gelder

The GuardianTramp

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