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Covid bubble rules scuppered our holiday, but we still had to pay £190

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Eighteen months ago, before Covid struck, I booked a large house in Scotland for a summer holiday for 17 friends and family. For obvious reasons it had to be postponed until this July. Unique Cottages, the lettings agent, rang me less than two weeks before the start date to inform us that the property had been withdrawn. I was offered an alternative booking at a later date or a full refund. I opted for the refund. However, the company has deducted £190 in booking fees and cancellation charges, and is refusing to repay them.
WR, Edinburgh

Unique Cottages prides itself on customer service. It certainly works hard at this – the contortions it has endured to avoid paying up are tireless. The first issue is why the booking was cancelled. At the time, you say you were told that the property had been withdrawn. Now Unique Cottages is blaming the size of your party, which exceeded the limits in place in Scotland at the time of your holiday in mid-July. Not that that had stopped it taking the balance for the reservation in June.

Moreover, you say that the party size was not mentioned in the phone call and you were not given the option to reduce the numbers, something you were expecting to do if the Scottish government confirmed ongoing restrictions during your holiday dates. And what were the rules on indoor gatherings back then? Unique Cottages’ excuse is that it was a maximum of eight people from up to four different households (in fact, the limit rose to 10 a day into your holiday) which you would have complied with had you been given the chance.

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It turns out, however, that the property owners had imposed their own restrictions of only one household bubble. They had also decided to remove the property from Unique’s books. When I put this to Unique, it simultaneously told me that the property wouldn’t be withdrawn from its books until the end of the year, so that wasn’t the reason for the cancellation, and that it no longer lets the property, so is not responsible for the owner’s changed rules on guest numbers.

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Having tried to square a circle, it concluded that the owner did not cancel the booking, so it was voided by your party size, and therefore Unique’s own terms and conditions, which pledge a refund of all charges if an owner is forced to cancel, did not apply. “Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, Unique Cottages acted on the guidance provided by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) regarding our cancellation and customer refund policy,” a spokesperson assured me.

Has it, though? The CMA states that consumers should receive a full refund if their contract is frustrated by the pandemic, and that circumstances where companies may deduct a contribution towards costs incurred are rare. Terms that require customers to pay costs for which they receive no benefit may be deemed unfair and would, therefore, not be binding. Ultimately, a court would have to rule on this.

In the meantime you are attempting a chargeback from your card issuer. You can also try claiming under section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act which holds card issuers jointly liable if a trader is in breach of contract.

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