'Uncharted territory': Travel disruptions, scarce insurance for Canadians amid COVID-19 outbreak
VANCOUVER -- Travel agents are fielding countless phone calls from nervous travellers as insurance companies begin to scale back or even eliminate coverage in the midst of a global outbreak that shows little sign of slowing down.
On Thursday, the federal government warned that “some travel insurance providers no longer cover travellers who need to cancel their trips to destinations that are subject to a travel advisory due to the coronavirus outbreak" and B.C.’s provincial health officer called international travel “a risk.”
"We have gone through situations – 9/11, SARS, MERS – and travel has been very resilient, but the fluidity of the situation and the unknowns of the situation are certainly uncharted territory,” said Allison Wallace, vice president of corporate communications for Flight Centre.
While some airlines and tour operators are waiving fees for those wanting to reschedule flights, Wallace said there are limits to the accommodations being made and travellers need to decide for themselves whether they want to continue with trips that are already booked or consider changing plans now.
“There are people that are frequent, savvy travellers and they've been through situations like this so it's not as fearful for them, and then there are people that are not confident travellers and it's all a big, scary world for them – but that's why you want to make sure you have the [latest] information," said Wallace.
At a press conference in which she told reporters eight new cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed in the province, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry also addressed concerns around spring break travel in the upcoming weeks.
“This is a globally challenging and changing situation on a day-by-day basis and people really have to make an assessment of their own risk and tolerance for being caught up in something like a quarantine that we’re seeing,” she said, noting there are more than 80 countries with confirmed cases.
“International travel, right now, is a risk, and people who are coming back from travel outside Canada, we really do ask them to be very cognizant of their own symptoms and have a very low threshold, even if they have the sniffles, to stay home and stay away from others," Henry said.
Insurance company warnings
With airlines cancelling entire routes as well as travellers looking to avoid exposure, insurance companies in Canada and beyond have started scaling back travel insurance coverage – in some cases, no longer offering it at all.
"If you've purchased a product already for a trip you've got coming up, not to worry, that coverage is in effect,” said Will McAleer, executive director of the Travel Health Insurance Association of Canada. “But, moving forward, there's some insurers who have now announced since we've seen the coronavirus move from country to country with some degree of knowledge and we can foresee it’s out there, it won't be covered on future policies.”
McAleer emphasized that it’s important to shop around and see what kind of travel insurance coverage is available from which companies, and that travellers should ask a lot of questions about what’s covered, including support for quarantine abroad.
“Find out what you're covered for and what you're not covered for because as this evolves – and it's evolving daily – we're seeing changes in the way underwriters are handling policies in Canada," he said.
Risk ratings and countries affected
Canada has four levels of risk for travellers when it comes to health concerns, with Hong Kong and Singapore currently rated at Level 1, urging travelers to practice “usual travel health precautions” like being up to date with vaccines and focus on hand washing.
Japan and South Korea are at Level 2, where “special precautions” are recommended, when “there is an outbreak in a limited geographic location, a newly identified disease in the region or a change in the existing pattern of disease.”
China, Iran and Northern Italy are rated “Level 3 – Avoid non-essential travel”, the highest rating currently in use. “A notice at this level would be issued during a large-scale outbreak in a large geographic area, or if there is increased risk to the traveller and an increased risk of spreading disease to other groups including the Canadian public,” according to the federal government.