Coronavirus and travel: Why going on holiday might be safer than staying at home

Should I stay or should I go? It's the question that seems to be dominating all others as the coronavirus sweeps the globe. Even my 82-year-old father, a retired doctor and a veteran globetrotter, keeps asking for my advice on his travel plans. 

A quick disclaimer before you read further. Despite my job title, which until recently most friends and colleagues regarded as a bit of a laugh, I have no medical training. If you have an existing medical condition, then you really must call your GP for some proper advice before setting off.

Formalities out of the way, let's start with my dad. Three weeks ago, when the virus was largely contained to China but there were concerns it was coursing through developing countries undetected (which it almost certainly was), he asked if it was a good idea to go to a wedding in India with his companion Barbara (aka Babs). 

Babs is a tad younger but a nervous traveller at the best of times. While my dad spent three months happily working on a medical project in rural Rwanda last year, she has an altogether different tolerance for comfort and risk.

We talked through the situation and agreed some red lines: don't go if the Foreign Office advises against it; don't go if you can't get comprehensive insurance; don't go if local cases are accelerating fast; and don't go if you are unlikely to be able to access a good hospital with a critical care bed if things go wrong.  

Beyond that we figured it was all down to how you feel. If your initial worry is going to fade and allow you to enjoy the trip then go for it. On the other hand, if either one of you is likely to feel anxious throughout, then it's much better to stay at home. 

In the end, they both went to India and had a great time. That was three weeks ago and although the virus is more widespread now (and the risk of contracting it higher), I'm not sure the advice would be very different today.

This week they are in France, stopping at a conference in Paris before visiting my hippy brother who lives in a converted goat shed or similar in the Pyrenees. We applied the same red lines as last time, subject only to a recommendation they should travel with hand sanitiser, paying particular attention to hygiene when handling things like airport security trays, a notorious breeding ground for many of the world's germs. Shaking hands was also ruled out, although dad didn't think much of my elbow bump alternative. I've not heard from them since they took off on Monday but that's probably a good sign.

For my own part, age 55 and therefore approaching the danger range which is broadly defined by the World Health Organization as 60-plus, I think it's also important to think about relative risk as the virus spreads. 


You can do this in a literal sense. Would I, for instance, have more chance of catching the virus in London where I commute on the Tube and work in a busy newsroom, or while skiing in the increasingly quiet European Alps?

Clearly northern Italy would not be a good idea, but in Switzerland, Austria, Germany and Norway not only is the risk of contracting virus no higher than at home but the hospitals in much of Europe have far more critical care beds per head of the population than Britain (see chart).

Also think about relative risk more broadly. My uncle of 88 came a cropper last week, falling and fracturing his hip on a ski slope in Connecticut. He has skied virtually every day this season and posts videos clips on Facebook of himself doing ludicrous tricks. 

Skiing is obviously an extremely risky thing to do in your 80s but he loves it. He's had a new hip fitted and thinks he might be out again before the end of the season. Not surprisingly, the coronavirus does not even register on his personal risk-o-meter and nor should it. More common everyday risks that still greatly outweigh the coronavirus for most of us include heart disease, lung and bowel cancer, depression and road traffic accidents. 

If the fresh air of the mountains does not tempt you, what about all those beaches going unpopulated around the world? Again apply the red lines above and perhaps avoid small islands, which can quickly get quarantined. 

My friend, Bruno, who runs a surf camp on the west coast of Portugal, contacted me this week asking where all the Britons had gone. The beaches were empty, he said, the waves amazing, and the Atlantic water a great cleanser for body and mind.

It's hard not to disagree and if it weren't for this outbreak keeping me chained to my desk I would be out there like a shot. With four grubby London schoolchildren at home, I'm pretty sure I would be safer there, virus-wise, than here in the office in London.

The Telegraph, London

See also: I've become trapped in coronavirus limbo in Italy

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