Coronavirus: Foreign Office ‘too slow‘ to repatriate Brits stranded abroad when pandemic hit

MPs praise staff for work in “challenging conditions" of Covid-19
Steve Parsons/PA Wire/PA Images

By Kate Forrester

28 Jul 2020

The Foreign Office was too slow to help Brits stranded abroad when the coronavirus pandemic hit, a report by MPs has said.

The Foreign Affairs Committee has criticised the department's "inadequate and impersonal" approach towards those who sought help from British embassies and said it was too slow to fly citizens home - spending just £40m of the £75m set aside for the purpose.

But MPs praised the efforts of Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) staff, who they said "worked hard in challenging conditions".

The select committee conducted a survey into the experience of those who tried to access consular services during the pandemic, of which 40% said they were unable to get in touch with their embassy.

Those that did reported receiving generic messages in place of tailored personal advice, with some of the communication described as lacking in empathy.

MPs added that the department "placed too much emphasis on commercial providers, in contrast with other countries that acted swiftly and chartered planes".

They said a small number of chartered flights could have run alongside commercial flights, to get more vulnerable citizens home safely more quickly.

Committee chair Tom Tugendhat said: “The coronavirus pandemic is the greatest challenge our Government has faced in a generation. The FCO was confronted with the uniquely complex task of repatriating the 1.3 million Britons stranded abroad."

He added: "This was a mammoth undertaking; one that the FCO could not realistically have anticipated or fully prepared for. We’ve heard numerous examples of individual FCO staff members who went beyond what could possibly have been expected of them to help those struggling to return home.

“But while most staff excelled, our inquiry also found clear failings. For many of those Britons stranded, the advice they received from the FCO was confusing, inconsistent and lacking in compassion, at other times misleading and outdated, and, in the worst cases, entirely absent."

The select committee has called on the FCO to develop contingency plans for times of crisis, set up better means of communicating with people and consider implementing a logging system for UK citizens abroad.

“We’ve heard stories from many vulnerable individuals stuck in difficult, and sometimes dangerous, circumstances," Tugendhat said.

"The lack of accurate, helpful information meant many felt forgotten and as though they had been left to fend for themselves. The FCO was at times too slow to recognise and respond to issues with their communication, and going forward must adopt a more agile and adaptable approach."

MPs also asked for the remaining cash in the original repatriation budget to be set aside to deal with a potential second coronavirus wave.

It comes after ministers declared Spain could no longer be included on a list of countries safe to travel to, with Brits on holiday there  - including transport secretary Grant Shapps - told they must quarantine for 14 days when they return home.

The FCO must proactively publicise that emergency loans are available for times of crisis, they added, and  offer extensions on the repayment of loans already taken out by those who could not afford to pay outright for emergency flights home.

‘Broader lessons’

Tugendhat added the crisis had exposed "broader lessons" that the FCO must learn in order to avoid repeating mistakes.

 “There are lingering questions around why the FCO did not employ all of the resources it had at its fingertips. When other nations were chartering planes home, the FCO continued to rely on commercial airlines, in a decision that can only be explained as cost-cutting. With a remaining £35m available, the FCO could have done more to help those stranded abroad, especially the most vulnerable.

“Whilst providing the option of loans for flights may have helped in the short term, many individuals and families unfortunate enough to find themselves stuck overseas were in real difficulty. Airlines were charging exorbitant ticket fees and many will struggle to repay the loans they took out in the midst of the crisis and with no other options."

Responding to the report, a Foreign Office spokesperson said: "Against the background of local lockdowns and international flight bans, the team worked tirelessly to keep commercial routes open as long as possible, while bringing stranded Brits home on 186 charter flights from 57 countries and territories.

"We have retained a repatriation team for the remainder of the year and boosted investment in our consular services and crisis management to ensure we are further prepared to support Brits caught up in the pandemic."

Kate Forrester is a senior reporter at PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared.

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