Travel industry pressed regulator on flight refunds in early days of pandemic: emails

Pandemics Travel industry pressed regulator on flight refunds in early days of pandemic: emails Millions who stayed at home during the 2008-2009 pandemic are told they can’t get new flights until six months after any health alert has been issued

Millions of people stayed at home during the 2008-2009 pandemic, data shows, despite advice from the Department of Health that they should try to travel to Europe as far away as possible from Britain in an attempt to contain the disease.

The department issued advice on its website in early August 2008 saying that people should try to keep at home and that those who wanted to travel might not be able to immediately find flights.

But by the next month more than two million Britons were staying at home and no travel ban had been implemented by the Department of Health – the beginning of a delay of six months between the NHS advice and the end of the pandemic, according to emails seen by the Guardian.

Much of the data is contained in emails to the Department of Health and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) from August and September 2008. They concern travel offers, mainly flights, and do not cover NHS appointments, prescriptions or NHS equipment, which were unaffected by the epidemic.

The DHSC regularly asked the Department of Health about airlines’ willingness to delay new bookings to protect UK travellers from possible illness, according to the emails. The travel industry, where the majority of flu-causing H1N1 viruses emerge, was pressing the regulator over flight refunds.

Many emails are from travel firms, including tour operators, hotels and cruise operators, and warn they cannot process refunds or claims until the Department of Health has “clearly” issued an infectious disease alert.

They write: “That’s as official as you get, we all know that you do not issue an infectious disease alert (usually via Dr Monocle) until an ‘early detection protocol’ has been triggered for ‘life-threatening’/’serious disease’/’critical’ conditions/’severe symptoms’.”

The DHSC sometimes issued an alert, notably on 5 September 2008, but this had to be repeated,” they continued. “The airlines and travel agents realise that as soon as an alert is issued, they are fully allowed to offer customers refunds. This is not the case in Europe.”

The NHS received 454,562 flu cases in the UK, of which 201 were very serious and were potentially life-threatening, up from 163 at the start of the pandemic.

Between 5 October and 8 November 2008, for the first time, there were more visits to accident and emergency departments than there were appointments in accident and emergency departments.

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