The way Irish holidaymakers are being treated in the Covid-19 crisis is a ‘shambolic disgrace’, a top consumer watchdog has claimed.
And it has called for a special fund for travellers who pay for holidays abroad but don’t go in order to dutifully follow Government advice.
This week’s launch of a ‘green list’ of countries giving a limited form of Government travel approval has added to the confusion, according to the Consumers’ Association of Ireland (CAI).
There are still no cancellation entitlements, apart from some holiday insurance policies, no refunds and a real challenge in terms of any attempt to renegotiate at any level, said Dermott Jewell of the CAI.
‘It is described by many as a mess but, realistically, it’s more of a shambolic disgrace,’ he said.
The green list is made up of Malta, Finland, Norway, Italy, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Cyprus, Slovakia, Greece, Greenland, Gibraltar, Monaco and San Marino.
It was immediately criticised for mostly including countries where Irish people do not commonly go on holiday and one – Monaco – that doesn’t even have an airport. Getting there would involve a trip through banned France.
‘It should also have included places like the Algarve and parts of Spain like the Balearics and The Canaries, which have low rates of Covid,’ said Ciaran Mulligan, head of Blue Insurance, which includes Multitrip.com.
Mr Mulligan also criticised the Government for leaving passengers ‘hung out to dry’ by not clearly banning travel to other countries not on the list, leaving people unable to claim refunds.
The all-important travel advisory notice from the Department of Foreign Affairs for non-green-listed countries is to ‘avoid non-essential travel’ which does not trigger a refund if you cancel your holiday.
According to the Irish Association of Travel Agents, planes are flying to other destinations only 15%-30% full because people are afraid to travel after being warned not to do so by health experts and the DFA.
And they will be hit hard financially by not being able to claim any refunds. ‘People are collectively losing around €800,000 a day,’ said Pat Dawson, chief executive of the ITAA.
He claimed airlines are still making these ‘ghost flights’ in order to avoid refunding passengers.
Even where airlines are giving refunds, there are long delays before you even get through.
One passenger told us of a two-month delay since applying for a refund from Aer Lingus without hearing anything back.
‘What has been the most frustrating has been the initial mishandling and ignoring of consumer rights and entitlements,’ said Mr Jewell.
‘This has now carried forward to the point where “advice” that it is safer to stay at home leaves the average consumer with the sole and personal decision to either travel with risk attaching or waive all costs with a loss of hundreds to thousands of euro.
‘Businesses have not accepted losses, and have instead sought supports, grants and facilitation.
‘The consumer, despite months of entreaty, has received no support, no form of compensation or allowance and no consideration of the impact such loss, much of it borrowed and still owing, places upon them or their family,’ he said.
The launch of the ‘green list’ means tourists who travel to these destinations do not have to quarantine for 14 days on their return. Some holiday providers will also now offer Covid-19 cover for these countries, including Blue and AIB.
However, in the immediate aftermath of the announcement on Wednesday morning, there was more ‘chaos’, according to Blue Insurance.
The Department of Foreign Affairs continued advising against travel to the countries on the new green list.
This prevented insurers from offering cover despite assurances to the contrary from Foreign Minister Simon Coveney.
In an interview with RTÉ radio early on Wednesday, Pat Dawson, head of the Irish Travel Agents Association said: ‘The warning against non-essential travel [that still stands on the DFA website] means that people have no insurance and will not go.’
Shortly after this, Mr Coveney rebuffed him, stating: ‘That isn’t true. Travel insurance companies will make decisions based on the official advice on the Department of Foreign Affairs website.’
However, Ireland’s biggest travel insurer has confirmed to the Irish Mail On Sunday that Mr Dawson was correct at that time.
Up to Wednesday night, Blue Insurance had heard nothing from the DFA, which still had the contradictory warning message on its website.
‘Late on Wednesday night they changed it and we confirmed [the new insurance products] in the morning. Ourselves, the ITAA and a number of parties had told them that it had to be changed [before holiday insurance could apply],’ said Mr Mulligan of Blue Insurance.
‘They [the DFA] knew quite well. They were told by several parties. The Tanaiste even said it in an interview the day before.’
‘Before the non-essential travel warning comes down we could do nothing. The green corridor doesn’t mean anything.’
Mr Dawson claimed the DFA changed the advisory warning ‘because we made contact with them. They weren’t going to. They don’t want anyone to go anywhere.’
Mr Mulligan said even if the DFA had intended to change the warning later, this wasn’t satisfactory.
‘It should have been changed before or at the same time as the announcement. If you bring it out but don’t change the travel warning, you create chaos.’
On Friday, Tanaiste Leo Varadkar sought to quell confusion about the green list.
‘I think the advice may not be simple but it is clear,’ he told RTÉ’s Sarah McInerney.
‘The Government is saying the safest thing to do is to stay at home, to not travel and holiday at home in Ireland this year.
‘But if you are travelling this year there are two sets of countries.
‘For those on the green list we’re saying you take normal precautions and that means you don’t need to restrict your movements for 14 days when you come back.
‘For those countries not on the green [list] the no non-essential travel advice still applies.
‘The virus does not know whether you’re on essential or non-essential business or what passport you have. What we’re saying to people is that the safest thing is not to travel for any reason.’
However, he admitted the Government could not stop people travelling regardless of the nature of their trip, adding ‘we’re not going to treat you like a child’.
Blue’s Multitrip.com will now offer elements of Covid-19 cover for countries on the list.
Included is cover for cancellation as a result of a positive Covid-19 diagnosis – either by you, a travel companion or a very close relative – on policies with immediate effect, including existing policies.
It will also cover medical expenses abroad relating to Covid-19 and added accommodation and transportation costs if required, providing the Department of Foreign Affairs advises it is safe to travel.
However, if an area where you have booked a holiday shuts down because of a Covid-19 outbreak you will not be covered for cancellations on this account.
‘We fought with the underwriters on this, but they wouldn’t budge,’ the company said.
Cover will also not apply for people required to self-isolate without a positive Covid-19 diagnosis.
Other insurers are expected to bring out Covid-19 cover. Last night, AIB confirmed that its travel ‘insurance will now cover customers travelling to green list countries’.
Consumer watchdogs were dismayed in May when then-transport minister Shane Ross asked the EU to suspend consumer rights to a refund if airlines and travel firms cancel trips.
Confusion over the minister’s stance had dragged on for months, encouraging airlines to delay refunds.
After the EU rejected this proposal, more weeks of uncertainty followed until the Government announced another fudge: it would financially guarantee vouchers but you could still get a refund.
However, you are only entitled to one under EU law if the airline or travel company cancel your holiday – and not if you do, even if you are following Government advice.