The Gambia: Who should make decisions about whether a school trip to West Africa should take place?

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The school attended by my children was featured in the national newspapers this week, and the issues covered raise some interesting questions about security and safety generally, which have wider impact for travel businesses.


The school has for a number of years had a close relationship with the Gambia, and has organised trips every two years to the Gambia targeted at students studying Geography for their A Levels. This year however, certain parents have questioned whether the trip should proceed, on the basis that cases of the Ebola virus have occurred in Sierra Leone and Guinea, described in the article as being 400 miles from the location where the children are staying. Reading between the lines, it would appear that the complaining parents want to be able to cancel their children’s trip and receive a full refund, but the school has refused to agree.


Some of the questions raised by this issue are also of great interest to travel businesses, and will become even more relevant if the proposals to reform the Package Travel Directive are implemented as they are currently drafted. Those questions include:


  • Is there actually any health risk to the children travelling on the trip?
  • Who should determine the extent of that risk, and on whose advice should the school and parents rely?
  • Should a concerned parent be entitled to cancel the trip without any penalty?


Is there a health risk, and who decides?

For most people looking at medical risk, the first places to seek a view is either the Foreign Office travel advice or any advice issued by the health authorities, either internationally through the World Health Organisation or for the UK, through Public Health England. The travel industry also has an excellent source of advice in NaTHNaC, The National Travel Health Network and Centre. Whilst for obvious reasons, authorities are unlikely to be absolutely unequivocal in their advice, the wording of the FCO travel advice could hardly be clearer:

There have been no confirmed cases of Ebola in The Gambia. For health advice relating to Ebola, see the National Travel Health Network and Centre website. For further details about this outbreak of Ebola, see the World Health Organization website, the NaTHNaC outbreak surveillance database and this map showing the areas affected.

The Gambian government has closed its air borders with Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria. The government has also announced that any international traveller who has been present in one of these 4 countries within 21 days of arrival in The Gambia won’t be allowed to enter.


With those constraints in mind, it is actually quite hard to see how Ebola could spread from the affected countries into the Gambia. Bear in mind as well that the Gambia does not adjoin any of the affected countries – it is surrounded by Senegal, although that country does have a border with Guinea. To date, there has been no outbreak in Senegal, so there is still quite a geographical and health leap to make before Ebola could find its way across 2 borders into the Gambia. The nearest point of any outbreak of Ebola is therefore several hundred miles from the Gambia, across routes where not many people travel – probably further and less accessible than travelling from London to the Shetland Isles.


One of the important features about the transmission of Ebola is that there needs to be very close personal contact with an infected person to pass on the virus – to that extent, it is quite similar to meningitis, and I would imagine that there are not many parents who will be too worried that a case of meningitis affecting a school in the Shetlands would directly impact on their children in London.


So, even though the Gambia is in West Africa, the advice of the health professionals appears to be that it is unaffected and that there is no risk to travellers to the Gambia. Circumstances do change, and it has to be appropriate to monitor this situation closely.


Should there be a right to cancel without penalty?

This question is of particular concern to the travel industry. At the moment, most travel companies will say that they rely on Foreign Office travel advice as a determinant as to whether it is safe to travel to any given destination, or more particularly whether it is unsafe. That view is also normally taken by travel insurance companies. As such, simple disinclination to travel is a risk and a cost borne by the individual traveller, or in this case, their parents. For most travel businesses, that approach works reasonably well, although there have been instances where travel advice may have been equivocal, and travel businesses have had to consider whether they need to do something which contradicts their government’s position – never an ideal place to be.


However, the new draft Package Travel Directive contains a right for passengers to travel their arrangements free of charge in instances:

…where unavoidable and extraordinary circumstances like warfare or a natural disaster will significantly affect the performance of the package. This may cover for example warfare, other serious security problems such as terrorism, floods or earthquakes, significant risks to human health such as the outbreak of a serious disease at the travel destination or weather conditions which make it impossible to travel safely to the destination as agreed in the contract. [Note that this is taken from a working draft of the document, and the final wording may change].


For the geographical reasons set out earlier, the case can be made that there are no circumstances which will significantly affect the performance of any package. However, experience of the courts is that they will generally interpret this sort of provision in favour of the consumer, and there will therefore be a risk that a concerned parent may be allowed to cancel the school trip free of charge.


There will always be individuals who are overly risk averse, and clearly, that is their prerogative. However, surely it should be up to the individual to bear the costs of that caution, rather than the travel provider?