Travelling and Diving During the COVID-19 Pandemic
*** UPDATE: As of 17 March, the UK Government is advising against all but essential international travel from the UK ***
It may have come to your attention that the world has gone into panic mode over Covid-19, the scientific name given to the novel (as in new and not seen before) coronavirus outbreak. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has announced that the outbreak is now a global pandemic and there is, apparently, a planetary shortage of toilet paper(!)
The media, as always, is full of sensationalist headlines and politicians are using the outbreak to try and gain partisan capital, so finding satisfactorily sensible advice is not an easy task. Covid-19 is a serious matter and not a disease to be taken lightly, but through the use of common sense, practical hygiene and a little thought for others, the idea of travelling need not be completely ruled out.
The situation is fluid and will no doubt change rapidly over the next few weeks, but as of Friday, 13 March, here is some of the latest travel advice compiled from the WHO, UK's National Health Service (NHS) and Government websites, plus particular advice for scuba divers from the Divers' Alert Network (DAN).
Travelling During Covid-19 Outbreak:
As of the time of writing, the WHO's advice is that travellers should be 'prudent' over their decisions to travel, but that travel should not necessarily be curtailed completely. It maintains that the risk of infection remains low outside of the most heavily affected areas, but recommends that elderly people and those with underlying health conditions should delay or avoid travel if possible. Otherwise, proper hygiene, including frequent hand-sanitization, 'cough etiquette' and not touching one's mouth and nose will help prevent the spread of infection.
- WHO Travel Advice: www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/travel-advice
Even with all the information available, it's impossible to provide advice that applies to all worldwide travel. The best advice that can be given is to check all options as thoroughly as possible before making your decision, bearing in mind that various travel restrictions and flight cancellations have already been implemented at very short notice. It might seem sensible not to travel at all to avoid being stranded in a location from which you either can't return, or will pay a fortune to do so, but checking the terms and conditions of your holiday packages and travel insurance may eliminate those concerns.
- Check with whichever operators you have booked through for the latest advice on the availability of flights, hotels, transfers and dive packages. Check what the refund policy is in the event of cancellation. A 'package holiday' where flights, hotels and diving are all included in a single payment should be refunded in its entirety, but individually booked components may not. Some operators such as Blue O Two are offering a money-back guarantee if you book between certain dates and are forced to cancel. Always check the terms and conditions carefully.
- Check the latest government travel advice in your country of residence to make sure that there are no advisories against travelling to your destination of choice. Doing so may automatically invalidate your insurance cover. In the UK, visit www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice
- It may be that you will be required to undergo testing for Covid-19 at the airport upon arrival in your destination, or that other precautions are necessary. You may need to factor extra delays into your travel plans.
- Check what is covered by your travel insurance in the event that you fall ill or are required to 'self-isolate' for 14 days while abroad. Check what is covered in the event of flight cancellation due to the coronavirus, and what exactly is covered in terms of 'repatriation', in case travel between countries is restricted while you are abroad.
- Note that during the time of writing this article, insurance companies are already starting to refuse to provide coronavirus coverage for travellers taking out new policies. One of the UK's biggest providers, LV Insurance, has completely stopped selling policies to new customers.
- DO NOT TRAVEL if you are under obligation to 'self-isolate'. This includes having knowingly been in contact with any infected person, or have recently visited Italy, Iran, China and certain cities in Korea, even if you do not have any symptoms. Self-isolation is also (currently, as of 12 March in the UK), required for travellers who exhibit symptoms after returning from Cambodia, Hong Kong, Japan, Laos, Macau, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. The list of self-isolation requirements will undoubtedly change but in the UK, check www.gov.uk/guidance/coronavirus-covid-19-information-for-the-public
Scuba Diving and Covid-19
Well, the good news is that you can't catch coronavirus underwater! Nevertheless, it makes sense to take precautions when you're off diving, whether that be on a distant liveaboard or at the local club. Covid-19 is spread just like the common cold and influenza in that it can be caught from a person's sneezing or coughing, and can exist for short periods of time outside of the body where it could be picked up and transmitted by surface contact. Above and beyond the hygiene standards advised by the WHO, the following recommendations from DAN and PADI should help prevent transmission and infection by divers.
- Use mask defog solution or soap, not saliva and spit to clear your mask
- Thoroughly disinfect masks (especially the nose pockets), snorkels, regulators and BCD oral inflators before and after use.
- Other potentially infectable items might include orally-inflatable SMBs and BCD whistles. Be thorough.
- Make sure the interiors of regulators and snorkels are properly cleaned, not just the mouthpiece.
- Take care when practising air-sharing exercises or buddy checks where two people might share the same regulator.
- Pay particular attention to rental gear. You may wish to ask for it to be disinfected prior to use, even if the staff say it was properly washed after its last outing.
- Commonly used antibacterial cleaning products - such as mouthwash - are ineffective against coronaviruses. A 10% bleach solution or other appropriate cleaning agent cleaner should be used (household cleaning products, alcohol etc) and - needless to say - thoroughly rinsed afterwards.
- Avoid communal rinse tanks that are not bleached or otherwise cleaned and disinfected on a regular basis.
- Carry disinfectant wipes in your kit bags when you're away from the dive centre. Make sure you dispose of them carefully.
Make sure you keep yourself as up-to-date as possible with the latest advice, and dig a little deeper than the news media's headlines for information. There's a short list of useful information below which - while not entirely comprehensive, does at least offer advice from the people who know best. As per the introduction, the Covid-19 pandemic is something that each of us needs to take seriously, but as most divers will know, panic will solve absolutely nothing: stop, think (check a lot of stuff), then act.
Resources for travelling divers:
- World Health Organisation COVID-19 website
- UK National Health Service (NHS) COVID-19 Advisory Page
- Centre for Disease Control (CDC), USA, COVID-19 Information Page
- UK FCO Travel Advice: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice
- Divers Alert Network (DAN), USA, guidelines for equipment use and disinfection
- Divers Alert Network (DAN), USA, list of all suitable cleaning products
- Recommendations from DAN Europe for DAN Training Courses (in Italian - English version here)
- PADI health and safety precautions for scuba training courses