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Urgent efforts to repatriate 30,000 British tourists from ski resorts in France are under way amid warnings of “widespread failures” in the travel sector in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

French mountains resorts closed at midnight on Saturday just hours after tens of thousands had landed for their annual holiday in the snow.

Leading ski and summer activity holiday company Neilson has called for the government to step in with “emergency measures”.

There were reports of chaos and confusion across the Alps with one source saying local police had taken the French government’s message into their own hands and going round hotels and restaurants telling marooned Britons to go home immediately.

Diane Palumbo, sales and marketing director at SkiWorld, said she had 900 customers across the Alps and they had been in talks with all the key resorts on Friday to warn them that if they were to close not to do so on Saturday when a fresh influx of tourists were scheduled to arrive.

“We are getting over our anger. It was literally not until 10pm last night that we were confident of the information we were receiving. The same people who had assured us on Thursday, Friday or even Saturday that they would remain open, have now all closed,” she said.

The French prime minister, Édouard Philippe, announced that the country must “close all non-essential locations, notably cafes, restaurants, cinemas, nightclubs and shops” from midnight.

Although ski-resorts were not specifically listed, the ski industry in the UK believe they are all closing.

One of the biggest operators, Inghams, said “as a responsible tour operator” it would not be operating any more holidays to French resorts for the rest of the season and advised those who were due to go out on Sunday to abandon plans.

Palumbo said all those who had booked through an ATOL backed agent would get their money back but that small- to medium-sized tour operators and travel companies could go bust.

“The airlines are very quick to ask for help from the government but this is a massive flow of people which will costs the industry millions. If the government does not step in travel companies will start to fail because the cost of repatriation will be enormous,” she said.

David Taylor, chief executive of Neilson holidays, said it was “hugely disappointed” that it received such short notice on the closures. He called for emergency measures for the sector.

With the Covid-19 crisis likely to last several months, we are asking the government to consider emergency measures specifically targeted at the travel and leisure sector to deliver immediate relief and help avoid widespread failures.

This remains an isolated issue on 2020 departures only and we are confident that next year will see a healthy recovery provided a swathe of relief measures recommended to the government are enacted.

Separately Ryanair was frantically working to repatriate customers stranded in Spain after the country was thrown into lockdown arrangements. It has also cancelled all flights to and from Poland.

“Ryanair Group Airlines (including Buzz and Lauda) has been forced to severely reduce flights to/from Spain, the Balearic Islands and Canary Islands from 24.00 Sun 15 Mar until 24.00 Thurs 19 Mar,” it said in a statement.

It added it was “contacting all affected customers by email to advise them of their options and we urge customs not to call us”.

Earlier, it announced all flights “to and from Poland have been cancelled from midnight on Saturday to midnight on 31 March”.

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