Hundreds, or even thousands, of Italians could be stranded in the UK by the novel coronavirus after major airlines announced they were suspending flights to and from Italy in the wake of the Italian government’s decision on Monday night to place the entire country on lockdown to tackle the outbreak, a diplomatic source told BuzzFeed News.
The Italian Embassy has already started to receive a “significant number” of inquiries from its citizens visiting the UK who now fear being stuck here, the source said.
British Airways and Ryanair were among several airlines to announce on Tuesday that flights were being halted. That came after the UK’s Foreign Office responded to the Italian government's move on Monday night by updating its travel advice to warn against all but essential travel to Italy.
The diplomatic source told BuzzFeed News that it was too early to say how many people from Italy would eventually be affected by the cancellations, and that the embassy was currently mapping the issue and consulting with Rome on what to do.
Based on initial contacts, the source estimated that currently, “hundreds” of people could be hit by the suspensions, but the figure could eventually rise to the “thousands,” they said.
About 1.8 million people visit Britain from Italy each year.
Italian diplomatic outposts around the world are likely to be facing similar pressures. Spain also announced that it was cancelling flights to Italy, while other airlines, including Qantas and KLM, said they were cutting the number of flights on the route.
Irish broadcaster RTE reported that Aer Lingus was set to cancel its flights to and from Italy until April 3, while Norwegian, which has also halted its flights to Italy, has had to lay off staff because of the coronavirus crisis.
Ryanair and British Airways have said that customers impacted by the suspensions could rebook their flights or receive a refund.
British Airways declined to address specific questions about potentially stranded passengers. A spokesperson said: “This is a fast-moving situation, and we recommend all customers check for the latest on their flight on ba.com.”
A Ryanair statement said: "All affected passengers have received email notices today informing them of these flight cancellations. Passengers looking for repatriation can obtain a free move to an earlier Ryanair flight operating up until midnight Friday 13 March. Affected passengers will be able to choose between a full refund or a travel credit that can be redeemed on Ryanair flights in the next 12 months."
Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte announced on Monday that coronavirus lockdown measures were being extended to the entire country, with travel to be restricted to reasons of work, health, and emergencies.
Any movements and gatherings outside those permitted would not be allowed. Schools and universities will also remain closed as part of the measures. Sports events were also suspended. The measures will last until April 3.
The latest data shows that Italy has had 9,172 cases of coronavirus. Of these, 724 people have so far recovered, while 463 have died.
The Italian Embassy has been approached for comment.