We’re just a few weeks into 2020 and, this year alone, the UK government has advised against all but essential travel to Iraq, Iran and China.
Whether it is for security or health reasons, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) publishes regularly updated travel information on their website. If you are planning to travel it’s recommended that you consult the FCO website before booking, but what happens if you must travel? And what if you’re already in a foreign country when a crisis arises?
Why does the FCO publish travel advice?
Brits make around 50 million trips overseas every year. While the vast majority are trouble-free, each year the FCO help thousands of British nationals who experience problems overseas.
The purpose of FCO advice is to provide guidance and information to help British nationals make informed decisions about overseas travel. The FCO assesses the risks of incidents including:
- Natural disasters
- Civil unrest
While no foreign travel can be guaranteed as safe, the advice is there to help you make a decision on whether you want to travel to a problem area.
The FCO say: “We know our travel advice can have a knock-on effect on trade and political considerations, but we don’t let this determine the advice we give. The safety of British nationals is our main concern.”
When do the FCO advise against foreign travel?
In certain cases, the FCO will advise against travel to a particular country. The most recent example saw the FCO advise against all but essential travel to mainland China following the coronavirus outbreak.
In cases of terrorism, the FCO will typically only advise against travelling if they believe the threat to British nationals is ‘sufficiently specific, large-scale or endemic’.
The FCO may also advise against all but essential travel to countries if they believe there is an ‘unacceptably high’ risk to British nationals from a non-terrorist threat, such as civil unrest, a natural disaster or a coup.
What is ‘essential travel’?
There is no specific FCO definition of ‘essential travel’.
Essentially, it is up to you whether you consider the trip to be essential. Circumstances differ between individuals, and if you have urgent family or business reasons for travelling then these may be considered ‘essential’ to you.
What if you are already in a country when travel advice is issued?
If you’re already in a location when new travel guidance is issued, you should:
- Make contact with your family and friends
- Make a decision about whether to leave the country, if it is safe to do so
- Continue to check FCO travel advice
- Remain in touch with your airline or tour operator (if you are a visitor)
For example, British people in China during the recent coronavirus outbreak were advised to make travel decisions based on their own personal circumstances and to decide whether staying in the country was essential.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: “Due to the increasing travel restrictions and the public health situation, we now advise against all but essential travel to China.
“We are also working urgently to finalise arrangements for an assisted departure from Hubei Province for British nationals this week and are in contact with people in Hubei to ensure they register their interest and that we can keep them updated.”
Similar advice was issued for Iran in early 2020 following a rise in tensions with the West. Due to these security concerns, the FCO advised against all travel to Iran, and air travel within the country. They also suggested that British nationals in Iran considered leaving the country immediately.
What the FCO can do to help you if you’re caught up in an overseas crisis
If you’re a British national resident or visiting a foreign country, there are several ways the FCO can help you if you’re caught up in a crisis:
- Travel updates on the FCO website and social media
- A hotline for advice (in some cases) and an information desk at a local airport
- Work with airlines and tour operators to provide information and travel updates
- Organise assisted departures (in exceptional cases) where you will be able to access transport to evacuate to a point of safety
- Deploy an expert team to support you and local embassy staff
- Offer ‘exceptional assistance measures’ in the aftermath of a serious incident, such as a terrorist attack.
Bear in mind that if you’ve ignored FCO travel advice to an affected area, they may not be able to provide you with any assistance.