Altitude Sickness: Travel Advice

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:10 pm on 21 March 2023.

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Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 4:10, 21 March 2023

I completely agree that disclosure is vital to ensure that the cover is valid. To build on what my hon. Friend said, as someone who enjoys outdoor recreation when I travel, it is important for me to check that the activity is covered by the policy. People should make clear pre-existing conditions and also be clear about activities to ensure that they have the proper cover. That particularly relates to altitude, because not every travel insurance policy covers that. I am sure my hon. Friend will agree with that.

We apply the same logic to Government advice on altitude sickness. We know that travelling to high altitudes can have health impacts. In the worst and most extreme cases, such as that of my hon. Friend’s sister-in-law Lorraine, altitude sickness may tragically result in an individual’s death. For countries where altitude sickness may present a particularly high risk—Nepal, Ecuador or China, for example—we include that information in our travel advice. We may point to specific regions that are higher in altitude, particularly if we know that they are a popular tourist or travel destination. For instance, our travel advice for Nepal mentions the risk of altitude sickness on Annapurna, Langtang and Everest base camp treks. As my hon. Friend pointed out, in our advice on Peru, we flag Cusco, Puno, the Colca canyon and Kuélap. In most cases, we point readers to NaTHNaC’s factsheet on altitude sickness. This resource lays out the key facts and symptoms, and gives advice on how travellers can reduce the risk of altitude sickness, and on what they can do if they develop symptoms.

The House will be aware that, ultimately, travel advice is just that: advice. Only travellers can decide whether to travel. It is their responsibility to plan for a safe trip, and to take sensible precautions, including when it comes to their health. The Government’s travel advice is intended to be just one source of information that can help British people to make informed decisions about where and how to travel. My hon. Friend has made a powerful argument for more information about altitude sickness in travel advice. I have listened to his concerns, both outside this Chamber and in his powerful speech today. I understand his desire to ensure that British people are better informed of the risks of high-altitude travel. I also recognise and appreciate, as I am sure he will, the desire for an ever-greater number of risks to be clearly outlined in the FCDO travel advice. I assure colleagues that we will always consider these arguments on their merits. However, we must make judgments and consider all risks in proportion. When other organisations have the necessary expertise, it is right to point British nationals in the direction of their detailed advice; in this case, we point them to NaTHNaC.

I remind the House that there is lots of information already available, through links and other sources, on our travel advice pages. I strongly encourage those travelling to click through, and to take the time to absorb all the relevant information available to them. I assure my hon. Friend that I will come the point that he raised; I ask him to bear with me.

We are always looking to improve our consular services, including our travel advice. We welcome any and all feedback, including the feedback that he has provided today, and we use it to improve our services and the information that we provide. Following a surge in demand for clear travel advice during the pandemic, and in line with our commitment to providing accessible, easy-to- use digital services, FCDO reviewed its approach to travel advice, design and content. Our aim is to improve the presentation and format of our travel advice pages, so that it is easier for the public to find the information that they need when travelling.

I recognise the strength of feeling from my hon. Friend—and others, no doubt—on the issue. We will consider his proposal very carefully. Officials have already updated the Peru travel advice to better highlight the risk of altitude sickness, which my hon. Friend set out today. Previously, the Peru travel advice stated that Peru had areas of high altitude; now we highlight the risk of altitude sickness. That is a step on. I have also asked officials responsible for travel advice to review the advice on other countries where altitude sickness is a risk, to ensure that we are clear about the risk that it presents. We will review opportunities to state more clearly what we are linking to, as that is best practice, and will redouble efforts to proactively encourage people to seek expert advice from NaTHNaC as an essential part of preparing for any trip.

I would be pleased to discuss the matter more fully with my hon. Friend in due course. We are on a journey. He has highlighted a key issue, and I am keen to ensure that we take further steps in making the risks more readily identifiable to people on the FCDO travel advice pages. However, when we highlight a risk, there is a responsibility on the individual to take the extra step of looking to the bodies that can provide detailed advice and information on how to prepare if they are not used to being at altitude.