The coronavirus pandemic has turned day-to-day life in Australia on its head, with consumers left reeling from a flurry of flight cancellations, event postponements and price gouging.
As the total number of Australian cases soars ever higher, businesses across the country are responding to the unfolding public health crisis in accordance with the federal government’s advice.
So what rights do consumers have in these unprecedented times?
In most cases, there are things you can do to get your money back.
Overseas flights, tours and cruises
Thousands of Australians’ travel plans were thrown into disarray after Qantas and Virgin Australia announced they would be grounding their international fleets, after Scott Morrison advised in March against any overseas travel.
As of 9pm on March 20, non-residents were also banned from entering Australia. By March 25, Australians were banned from travelling overseas in almost all circumstances.
Both carriers suspended all overseas flights from late March. Qantas does not expect planes to return to the skies until late May, while Virgin has flagged mid-June as its earliest return date.
Virgin and regional airline Rex have also grounded the vast majority of their domestic flights. Virgin’s budget arm, Tigerair, will not fly at all until the end of the pandemic.
Remember – travel insurers may not cover you if your airline or travel company goes bust.
Qantas Airways has furloughed most of its 30,000-strong workforce and scrapped all international flights as travel demand dries up due to the #coronavirus pandemic.
— QuickTake by Bloomberg (@QuickTake) March 18, 2020
More international airlines have been following suit, with many countries moving to close borders and ban flights in and out.
The reason for the cancellation is important
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission says all travellers affected by Qantas and Virgin’s decisions should be entitled to some form of remedy.
“If your travel is cancelled the ACCC expects that you will receive a refund, a credit note or voucher, in most circumstances,” the commission wrote on its website.
Qantas told customers with existing bookings who were second-guessing domestic or international travel plans that they could cancel flights in return for a 12-month travel credit voucher to the same value.
If a traveller’s plans are affected by a lockdown – for instance, in Italy – the procedure to recover airfares or hotel booking costs is murkier.
If the event, flight or travel service is cancelled due to government restrictions, consumer rights under the consumer guarantees may be impacted,” the ACCC said.
“In these situations, consumers may be entitled to a refund under the terms and conditions of their ticket, or potentially may make a claim under a travel insurance policy,” the ACCC says.
Flight Centre said it is “happy to offer our customers the option to either rebook their travel, alternatively, we can place the value of their booking (less supplier fees) into a credit for travel within 12 months of cancelling”.
But many basic travel insurance policies might not cover cancellations due to unexpected public health crises, such as the COVID-19 contagion.
What about concerts?
The outbreak brought the swift cancellation or postponement of major Australian events such as the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix, Byron Bay’s Splendour in the Grass music festival, and Dark Mofo in Tasmania.
Affected ticket holders should in most cases be able to recoup their money, or receive a gift voucher towards the next year’s event.
Following the cancellation of the Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix, ticket purchasers are advised of the following information to help get your money back to you as soon as possible.
But as restrictions on the size of mass gatherings become more stringent – most functions are basically now cancelled – the ACCC warned consumers might encounter difficulty seeking a refund if the federal government declares a lockdown.
Its best advice was to contact promoters directly to confirm remediation – and businesses have been urged to treat consumers fairly.
There will be some exemptions to refund policies. For instance, if someone decides not to attend a function because of anxiety about the coronavirus outbreak, they might not be entitled to a refund as it could be considered a “change of mind”.
What if you see price gouging?
Shoppers on social media have shared grievances over some grocers and pharmacies apparently attempting to profit from scarce essentials such as toilet paper and hand sanitiser.
The grocer below my building was selling 48pack of toilet roles for $49.99 last week, as of yesterday they increased to $59.99. I also saw the receive a truck load of rolls when I can’t even buy a four pack ato coles/woolies/Aldi – how are they allowed this?
— TWITT3R5 (@TWITT3R5) March 19, 2020
Unfortunately, the ACCC says consumers have little recourse if they see a business marking up prices in response to recent panic-buying.
But a business could breach Australian consumer law if it manipulates prices for products that are “critical to the health or safety of vulnerable consumers”, such as medicine, or if it misleads customers about the reasons for a price rise.
Despite the limited legal protections, consumer watchdog Choice encourages consumers to alert it to stockpiled products being sold on online forums such as Facebook Marketplace, eBay or Gumtree.
— Worx (@worxexell) March 15, 2020