The travel plans of tens of thousands of holidaymakers have been thrown into doubt after British Airways, EasyJet and Ryanair cancelled hundreds of flights due to coronavirus.
In a dramatic development, BA yesterday axed hundreds of short-haul flights to destinations across Europe, including Italy, France, Germany and Ireland, from March 16 to 31.
The airline also scrapped 12 long-haul flights from Heathrow to New York, its busiest and most profitable route, along with dozens of services to China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Seoul.
In all, the airline has cancelled about 3 per cent of its flights until the end of this month.
Bosses at BA’s parent company, International Airlines Group (IAG), are in crisis talks over the outbreak, which has led to plummeting demand for international travel as passengers stay at home for fear of contracting the virus, or being stranded abroad and forced into quarantine.
British Airways has cancelled a string of transatlantic flights from London to America due to wide-spread coronavirus fears. Pictured: The virus has spread to 50 countries worldwide
The airline says it is reducing the volume of flights because less people want to travel amid growing concerns about coronavirus. Pictured: A traveller wears a surgical mask at LaGuardia Airport, New York
Among the worst-hit carriers is EasyJet, which has cancelled 500 flights to 13 airports in Italy over the second half of March – affecting one in ten flights to the country
Many airlines have recorded pitifully low passenger numbers and delays caused by passenger no-shows.
Among the worst-hit carriers is EasyJet, which has cancelled 500 flights to 13 airports in Italy over the second half of March – affecting one in ten flights to the country.
The airline, whose share price has dropped by a third this week, has rolled out emergency measures to deal with reduced ticket sales, including a staff pay freeze.
Yesterday Ryanair also announced it would reduce the number of flight to and from Italy, from airports across Europe, by up to 25 per cent from March 17 to April 9.
A spokesman wouldn’t confirm which Ryanair routes had been cancelled, but said passengers would be contacted at least 14 days in advance. Until now, the vast majority of cancelled flights across all airlines had been due to depart to the worst-hit countries, such as mainland China and, in recent days, cities in northern Italy.
But the latest announcement of sweeping cancellations to locations across Europe – and even the US – threatens to ruin the travel plans of hundreds of thousands of people.
BA grounded 24 flights between Heathrow and New York’s JFK airport. Pictured: A man wears a mask in London’s Heathrow Airport
BA will waive flight-change fees for people who book within the next two weeks, amid uncertainty about the spread of the virus (stock image)
Although most airlines have cancelled flights up until March 31, there is no guarantee that it won’t be extended into April, which could spell chaos for families with planned Easter getaways.
70% leap in calls to 111 hotline
Calls to NHS 111 are up by 70 per cent on last year as thousands of Britons seek advice on coronavirus.
In the past seven days the helpline fielded 442,948 queries – an average of 66,300 a day – compared to 318,191 for the same week last year.
On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of last week the number of calls was nearly 70 per cent higher.
The surge in demand coincided with a spike in cases in Northern Italy where many Britons had just returned from half-term ski trips.
Several patients complained they waited four hours for a call-back – and one claimed it took four days.
Last night the NHS announced an extra £1.7million would be ploughed into the service to recruit 500 extra staff and set up a new virus advice website.
Professor Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director, admitted the helpline had come under pressure as the first port of call for worried patients.
The entire health service is bracing for a surge in demand in the coming months.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock yesterday said he feared widespread transmission of coronavirus in the UK ‘may be inevitable’. He also warned front-line medics may themselves get infected.
The sheer number of cancellations has forced BA to waive the fee it usually imposes on customers who wish to change the date of their flight. However, this applies only to new bookings made between March 3 and 16, and if the new flight is more expensive, passengers will have to pay the difference.
BA has also contacted customers on cancelled flights and is offering them the option of rebooking with other airlines, a full refund, or a seat on a BA flight at a later date.
Consumer champion Which? called on airlines to urgently update families in the run-up to Easter.
A spokesman said: ‘BA and Ryanair must ensure they are keeping passengers informed and quickly rerouting them to their destinations on the next available flight, with other carriers if necessary.
‘Given the circumstances, airlines should also consider offering flexibility to customers who don’t want to travel, such as allowing refunds and waiving flight change fees for both existing and future bookings.’
Industry insiders fear a global pandemic will devastate the aviation and travel industries.
Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary said: ‘Our focus at this time is on minimising any risk to our people and our passengers. While we are heavily booked over the next two weeks, there has been a notable drop in forward bookings towards the end of March, into early April.
‘It makes sense to selectively prune our schedule to and from those airports where travel has been most affected by the Covid-19 outbreak.’
A spokesman for BA said: ‘To match reduced demand due to the continuing coronavirus issue, we are merging a number of flights between March 16 and March 28.’
EasyJet said: ‘We can confirm that we have taken the decision to cancel a number of flights mainly to and from Italy following a slowing in demand. The cancellations are for some flights between March 13 and March 31, most of which have multiple daily frequencies.’
Budget airline Ryanair is to cut flights in and out of Italy, its largest market, by 25 per cent for three weeks. Pictured: A passenger wears a mask in arriving from Italy at Vnukovo International Airport, Russia
Most of BA’s cancellations are for short-haul flights between Heathrow and Italy, France, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Ireland and Switzerland. Pictured: A woman wearing a face mask at Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport
PM surfaces – and vows that Britain will not be defeated
By Jason Groves, Political Editor for the Daily Mail
Boris Johnson took personal charge of handling the coronavirus outbreak last night and declared that Britain ‘will not be defeated’.
The PM had previously faced criticism for delegating the issue to Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
Today Mr Johnson will publish a ‘battle plan’ for coping with a potentially major outbreak of the virus in the UK.
Last night he gave his first major interview on the issue, in which he conceded Britain could be facing a ‘mass epidemic’, but insisted preparations were in hand.
The moves follows Labour claims that Mr Johnson was a ‘part-time prime minister’, an allegation that appears to have stung him. In recent weeks, he also faced major criticism for refusing to visit areas devastated by the February floods.
A Heathrow Terminal 2 airport staff member wore rubber gloves and a face mask as he greeted passengers arriving for the Air China flight to Beijing on Saturday
Officials yesterday said the PM had been receiving daily updates on the virus and holding twice-weekly meetings with Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty since January.But the jibes appear to have jolted No 10 into action to reassure voters that the PM has a grip on the situation.
Yesterday he chaired his first emergency Cobra meeting on the matter after leaving Mr Hancock to chair the previous five.
In an interview with the BBC last night, Mr Johnson said the Government had taken ‘every possible precaution’ in its preparations for a possible outbreak – and said the NHS would get all the resources needed to handle an unprecedented challenge.
Outbreak ‘may halve global growth’
The coronavirus outbreak could slash global economic growth in half and plunge many countries into recession, an influential watchdog warned yesterday.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development lowered its central growth forecast for this year from 2.9 per cent to 2.4 per cent but predicted a ‘longer-lasting and more intensive coronavirus outbreak’ could slash this to 1.5 per cent.
Laurence Boone, the OECD’s chief economist, said: ‘The main message from this downside scenario is that it would put many countries into a recession, which is why we are urging measures to be taken in the affected areas as quickly as possible’. The watchdog said lower interest rates and ‘stronger government spending can help boost confidence with the recovery of demand once the outbreak eases and travel restrictions are removed’.
With savers reeling from the worst week on stock markets since the financial crisis, the Bank of England said it was ‘working closely with HM Treasury and the Financial Conduct Authority – as well as our international partners – to ensure all necessary steps are taken to protect financial and monetary stability’.
Analysts predicted the Bank could swiftly cut interest rates from the current 0.75 per cent in a bid to boost the economy.
The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank Group issued a joint statement saying they ‘stand ready to help our member countries address the human tragedy and economic challenge’ of the crisis.
He said that today’s ‘battle plan’, which will include proposals to shut down mass gatherings if the situation worsens, was ‘intended to give people a sense of… the menu of options that we have to try to stop that expansion, that spread of the disease.’
He added: ‘The most important thing now is that we prepare against a possible very significant expansion of coronavirus in the UK population – that’s clearly on the cards. And I’ll just remind everybody what I’ve said for a while now: this country is very well-prepared, we have a fantastic NHS, we have a fantastic ability to conduct large-scale testing.’
The PM acknowledged that the UK was likely to have ‘thousands’ of cases of the virus in the coming months, although privately officials acknowledge that there could be millions in a worst case scenario.
Mr Johnson also warned that the disruption caused by people being off work would hit the economy.
He said: ‘Something like a mass epidemic is going to have all sorts of consequences and there is always the potential for an economic downside as well… But don’t forget the fundamentals of the UK economy are very strong.’ He added: ‘I have absolutely no doubt that this country will not be defeated by coronavirus and that we will come through it very well, in the end.’
A ‘war room’ has been set up in the Cabinet Office to bring together health and communications experts together ahead of a major public information campaign. Meanwhile, it emerged the UK is set to pull out of a European scheme for tackling virus pandemics.
Downing Street said the UK would look to develop alternatives to the Early Warning and Response System after the Brexit transition expires despite health experts and the NHS urging ministers to retain membership of the scheme.