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Consumers face a pingdemic refund lottery

Emma Lunn
Written By:
Emma Lunn

People pinged by the NHS Covid app and told to self-isolate face a lottery when it comes to getting their money back for prepaid activities.

Between 8 and 14 July alone, more than 600,000 people were pinged and told to stay at home. Millions more could potentially be pinged before 16 August, when those who are double-vaccinated or under 18 will no longer be required to quarantine.

As the school summer holidays loom, many families are trying to keep their children entertained, while others have booked events and activities to take advantage of scaled back Covid restrictions.

Which? is calling on businesses to do the right thing by consumers and offer refunds and flexibility if consumers are pinged and told to self-isolate.

The consumer champion spoke to 12 event organisers and popular attractions, including Vue Cinemas, Legoland, GoApe and London Zoo about their refund policies and found that all bar two initially gave ticket transfers over refunds.

Some consumers may be happy to rebook their event but for those who are not and cannot get a refund, there is the risk that some might disregard important health guidance rather than miss an event and potentially lose their money.

For example, if consumers have booked a one-off event – like a concert – or arranged a family trip to a theme park involving hundreds of miles of travelling across the UK which they will struggle to reschedule, they might be tempted to disregard the advice so they don’t lose their money.

The Competitions and Market Authority’s (CMA) statement on coronavirus states that businesses should treat consumers fairly and suggests trying to find a mutually acceptable solution. Otherwise, consumers are entitled to cancel their tickets and seek a refund in line with the pre-existing terms and conditions.

However, consumers often face a refund lottery when trying to get their money back. While some businesses are trying to support their customers during the pandemic, the level of flexibility consumers can expect if pinged by the app to self-isolate varied between event organisers.

Of the 12 event organisers Which? spoke to only Center Parcs, Vue Cinemas, Blackpool Pleasure Beach and Chester Zoo offered a refund up front.

Paultons Park, where Peppa Pig World is based, London Zoo and Whipsnade Zoo only offered refunds if the consumer could not find an alternative date.

Folly Farm, UK Theatre, STAR tickets, Go Ape and Merlin Entertainments (who own Legoland, Chessington, Madame Tussauds, Alton Towers and Thorpe Park) all allow for ticket exchanges, gift vouchers or rebookings rather than refunds. TicketMaster says refund decisions lie with individual event organisers.

The length of time consumers have to transfer their tickets also differs. For example, Go Ape gives customers a year to transfer their tickets while for Blackpool Pleasure Beach, transfers are only valid until the end of 2021 – which could cause issues for consumers who need to rearrange for a later date.

Which? says the government could assist consumers and businesses by giving clear and consistent information about what people need to do if pinged by the app. The group believes businesses should show understanding and flexibility to those who are self-isolating because they have been notified by the app, including offering refunds when alternative options are not viable.

Consumers should carefully check the terms and conditions of their ticket and contact the ticket seller for a refund. People could also consider sharing evidence that they have been asked to self-isolate with the business when asking for their money back.

If consumers cannot get their money back from the ticket seller after contacting them, they can contact their bank or credit company to see if they can get a refund through their credit or debit card.

Adam French, Which? consumer rights expert, said: “If people are pinged by the NHS app they’re expected to self-isolate for at least 10 days and avoid contact with others. These measures are advisory, but if people are told to isolate by NHS Test and Trace it’s a legal requirement to comply.

“Most of us will want to do the right thing and self-isolate if we are pinged by the app. But, because these warnings from the app are guidance, you might not be entitled to a refund for tickets to an event you can no longer attend as normal terms and conditions will apply.

“People should not be left out of pocket for trying to do the right thing. Businesses who aren’t already refunding customers who have been pinged by the app should be flexible and give people their money back if they can’t find another solution.”