As the Prime Minister has said, the coronavirus pandemic
“is the worst public health crisis for a generation”.
It is unsettling for families up and down the country, in all of our constituencies, so we need a united effort to tackle covid-19 effectively and come through this challenge, as I am confident we can and will. Following on from, and consistent with, the domestic measures announced by the Prime Minister yesterday, and based on the fast- changing international circumstances, today I am announcing changes to Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice. UK travellers abroad now face wide- spread international border restrictions, and lockdowns in various countries. The FCO always considers the safety and security of British nationals, so, with immediate effect, I have taken the decision to advise British nationals against non-essential travel globally, for an initial period of 30 days, and, of course, subject to ongoing review.
I should emphasise that this decision has been taken based on the domestic measures introduced here in the UK, alongside the changes to border and a range of other restrictions that are now being taken by countries right around the world. The speed and range of those measures across other countries is unprecedented, and some of those decisions are being made without notice. In some cases, even in countries or particular areas where there have not yet been any reported cases of covid-19, local authorities are none the less imposing restrictions on movement, and, again, doing so with little or sometimes no notice whatsoever. In the light of those circumstances, we want to reduce the risk of leaving vulnerable British tourists and visitors stranded overseas. We will, of course, keep this advice under review and amend it as soon as the situation responsibly allows.
The Government are, of course, keenly aware that international freight services, such as shipping and haulage, are vital for ensuring the continuity of the supply of essential food, goods and material to the UK. So we regard that kind of travel as essential, and we will work with industry to issue detailed advice that maintains the flow of goods, while protecting the wellbeing of staff working on those routes. The Department for Transport will be leading that work with the freight sector, with the objective of minimising disruption to those routes as far as is possible. At the same time, FCO consular teams are working around the clock to provide the best and most up-to-date information that we can possibly provide to UK nationals. By way of context, let me say that in the past week alone we made more than 430 changes to FCO travel advice, and we will continue to keep it under close and constant review.
We are providing support to British nationals who have been impacted by coronavirus while travelling. During the initial outbreak, or containment phase, we arranged the repatriation of more than 200 vulnerable British nationals from China between 31 January and 9 February. We took that particular action to support British nationals and control the return of those possibly exposed to covid-19 at the earliest point in the crisis, when it appeared that the virus might be—might be—contained in China.
In other cases, such as that of the British nationals affected by a covid-19 infection in a hotel in Tenerife, we worked with travel companies and airlines to ensure that those concerned were safely brought home. We also changed our travel advice to advise people over 70, or with underlying health conditions, against travelling on cruises, to protect those most at risk from coronavirus. We have arranged repatriation from cruise ships, including most recently the 131 UK nationals who returned from the Grand Princess, which was docked in California. They arrived home last Wednesday.
Also on the issue of cruises, we have been working intensively with the Cuban authorities and Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines to ensure that all British nationals are able to return quickly and safely to the UK. That is of course in relation to the Braemar cruise liner. We are doing all we can to ensure that they return to the UK on flights from José Martí international airport in Havana within the next 48 hours. I spoke to the Cuban Foreign Minister twice over the weekend, and we are very grateful to the Cuban Government for swiftly enabling this operation and for their close co-operation to make sure that it could be successful.
As well as those repatriations, UK consular teams are working with those who are affected by difficult quarantine conditions; by the closure of tourist resorts in, for example, Europe and North Africa; or, indeed, when new regulations are introduced in countries where UK nationals are visiting. We will do everything in our power to get those British nationals affected the care, support and practical advice that they need.
We also need to be clear about our capacity to repatriate people from abroad, given the scale of the numbers. We have taken action where necessary, but no one should be under any illusions: it is costly and complicated to co-ordinate, so Government-supported repatriations have been undertaken only in exceptional circumstances. Ultimately, the primary responsibility for managing outbreaks of covid-19 and quarantine measures must rest with the country in which the outbreak has occurred. FCO teams around the world are working urgently to ensure that Governments have sensible plans to enable the return of British and other travellers, and, crucially, to keep borders open for a sufficient period to enable returns to take place on commercial flights, wherever that is possible.
Following today’s change in travel advice, British nationals who decide that they still need to travel abroad should do so fully aware of the increased risks of doing so. That obviously includes the risk that they may not be able to get home if travel restrictions are subsequently put in place that they had not anticipated. So, we urge anyone still considering travel to be realistic about the level of disruption they are willing and able to endure, and to make decisions in the light of the unprecedented conditions that we face.
Today’s travel guidance follows the domestic measures announced yesterday. It forms part of our national effort to meet the international challenge presented by coronavirus —a challenge that we will rise to as a Government and as a country. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. We hear what he says on freight, but could he give us any guidance on what is “essential travel” when it comes to people? Does it include people coming home? This is a time of immense concern for tens of thousands of British nationals stranded abroad; they are not just dealing with the stress of trying to get accurate information and make their way home, but doing so facing the ever-present fear of infection.
I was contacted yesterday by Tom, one of the 65 British nationals in Cusco, Peru, which has announced a 15-day state of emergency, with its borders closed and the army enforcing a quarantine. Tom’s flight to Britain today has been cancelled and his calls to our embassy in Lima have not been answered. Why is that? Because the embassy itself has decided to close down for 15 days, just when its services were needed most. The Secretary of State said in his statement that our
“consular teams are working around the clock to provide the best…information available to UK nationals”;
well, I am afraid that that simply is not the case in Tom’s experience. He says:
“We have received no advice or assistance…we are all extremely concerned at being stranded here.”
Across the world, there are tens of thousands of British nationals in the same position as Thomas, and all have the same message for the British Government: “Help bring us home”. As far as they are concerned, their travel is essential and it is no use telling them to rely on advice from the Governments in the countries from which they are travelling when, inevitably, they will be the least of those countries’ concerns. Nor is it any use telling them to rely on the instructions of their travel operators, which, all too often in recent weeks, have been at odds with the official FCO travel advice and are driven by the fear of insurance claims and bankruptcy, not by the needs of our citizens.
The Government cannot keep passing the buck to others, especially when it comes to repatriation. Yes, it is difficult, and yes, it is expensive, but that is the nature of the crisis that we face. In his response, can the Secretary of State directly address Tom and his compatriots in Peru and all the other British nationals around the world currently in the same position, and tell them what he is doing to help bring them home?
Will the Secretary of State reassure us today that the Foreign Office will learn the lessons from this fiasco by asking itself some very basic questions? First, why were there no clear protocols in place for evacuation and repatriation in the event of an outbreak such as this? If those protocols were in place, why were they not followed? Secondly, why has official travel advice from the FCO been so slow to match what is happening on the ground? This weekend, we had tour operators going door to door in French ski resorts, telling British families to leave immediately, while the Foreign Office website said that there were no restrictions on travel. Thirdly and most basically, as Tom’s case in Peru illustrates, will the Foreign Secretary determine why the levels of consular support have been so out of step with the levels of global demand?
When the dust settles on this crisis, as we all hope it eventually will, we will reflect on what has been a chronic failure of global leadership and co-ordination in which our own Government has sadly been a part. Instead of every country working together to agree best practice and apply common standards on testing, tracking, travel restrictions, quarantines, self-isolation and social distancing, we have instead seen a global free- for-all, with every country going it alone. Instead of the international community coming together to pool its experience and work together to develop a vaccine and a cure, we have again seen individual companies and countries working in silos. We have also seen a shameful attempt by Donald Trump to buy the German company that is in the lead when it comes to discovering a vaccine, not just to steal the glory of the vaccine for himself, but to hoard it for the Americans alone. The challenges posed by the coronavirus are fearful enough for the world without our leaders compounding them through their incompetence or their inaction. That is exactly what we have seen when it comes to this Government’s approach to repatriation, but it is part of a pattern that goes far beyond that one issue and far beyond our one country.
Will the Secretary of State undertake today that, as well as fixing the immediate issues that we face with the coronavirus, not least around repatriations, Britain will lead the way in ensuring that these outbreaks will be better managed in future?
I thank the right hon. Lady for her response, at least in relation to recognising the scale of the challenge. She asked a number of questions, and I will give her as much of a substantive response as I can. She asked what essential and non-essential travel means. Ultimately, the Foreign Office gives travel advice, but the decision on whether to travel remains an individual one. Travellers may have urgent or particularly exceptional business—family, commercial or otherwise—and circumstances may differ, but what we are doing is strongly advising against global travel. That is, in part, a reflection of the domestic measures that were announced yesterday around social distancing. We also want to limit the number of people, particularly vulnerable people, who find themselves in the plight of not being able to get home because of some of the issues that she has raised.
The right hon. Lady mentioned the team in the Philippines—
In Peru, yes. That team is working as best it can under very difficult conditions. I am very happy to take a look at the case to which she has referred. We have a whole range of practical advice for hon. Members to give to their constituents. Our FCO travel advice is available online. Hon. Members and their constituents can sign up to receive email updates, so they get it in real time. My officials also run a specific hotline for hon. Members to contact. I have also shared details with hon. Members in a “Dear colleague” letter, which will go out shortly today. We are doing everything that we can to give hon. Members on both sides of the House the practical information that they need in what is a fast-moving and fluid situation.
The right hon. Lady asked what we were doing more generally in relation to helping people to get back home. The first thing to say is to avoid travel if you might find yourself in a situation, either because of current or future measures, in which you are unable to get back home. We are liaising with the tour operators and the airlines to make sure that even when restrictions are in place there is a window of opportunity to get out with commercial flights. We do not have precise numbers, but given the volume of British nationals who are abroad—not necessarily permanently or living abroad, but travelling abroad—to expect that the Government can repatriate them all is unrealistic. What we do is make sure that we are in a position to protect the most vulnerable.
The right hon. Lady asked why our consular teams were stretched. She ought to have a look at the scale of the international challenge that this country and everyone are facing with covid-19. Teams across Government, including consular teams in the Foreign Office, are doing an exceptional job in very difficult circumstances. She is right to point to different measures that have been taken around the world. The UK approach is to follow the best scientific advice that we have, and to take measures, both domestically and internationally, in line with trying to reduce the peak of coronavirus in the UK and the number of infections, and making sure that we maximise the capacity of the NHS to deal with that. Finally, the right hon. Lady did her usual routine of sniping at the US President. That is no substitute for a serious question on the substance, let alone a serious policy answer.
As the honorary president of the British International Freight Association, I thank the Foreign Secretary for his words about the freight forwarders and their job in keeping goods moving in and out of the country. May I raise two issues with him briefly? First, will he encourage the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and tour operators and airlines to have easily accessibly websites so that tourists who may be stuck in the Dominican Republic and elsewhere can get information on what is likely to happen to them? Finally, there are some countries where people have to apply for a business visa to go to a business meeting—it costs up to £600 for India—so if they suddenly decide they are not issuing visas, will he encourage high commissioners and Governments to make it possible to transfer that to a future arrangement, rather than just take the money and forget about it?
I thank my hon. Friend, who makes a number of important points. We are liaising with tour operators, insurance companies and, of course, airlines, and we will convey the message that he proposed about making sure that their advice is as transparent as possible. That needs to be done in real time, and I shall certainly consider further the flexibility that he suggested in relation to visas.
Now is a time in which we should be seen to work together and, indeed, work together. I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of the statement. Now is the time for us to eschew party political point scoring.
We on these Benches support the changes, and we support the statement. I should also like to record our appreciation of and solidarity with the hard-working FCO staff worldwide, who are doing a very tough job in very tough times. They themselves have families and, indeed, some of them have respiratory conditions. We give them our support.
We support the statement as far as it goes, but I urge the Foreign Secretary—perhaps this is a discussion that he needs to have with the Chancellor, and I am conscious that there is a statement later about that—to go further. His statement did not deal with the point about insurance at all. For Scots and Brits abroad who are stuck and want to get back, and are looking to find a way to do so, the biggest practical help that we can offer right now is to speak to insurance companies, because their insurance is uppermost in their mind. Colleagues will be aware of the statement this morning from Sir Charles Bean of the Office for Budget Responsibility:
“You need the state to be there as the insurer of last resort against what is effectively an act of God. The state surely has a role. Big early action is surely better than half-hearted action that is late.”
We could not agree more. The Chancellor is making a statement later, but insurance is the biggest priority for our nationals who are overseas and want to get back. I urge the Secretary of State to have a full discussion with the Chancellor on that point. The state needs to step in to get our people home.
I particularly welcome the bipartisan tone that the hon. Gentleman has taken. I thank him for welcoming the statement and particularly for recognising and paying tribute to the consular staff and wider FCO teams who, in very difficult circumstances—not least given the advice that we in Government have given—are doing a tremendous job.
The hon. Gentleman asked about insurance companies. Obviously, they take their lead, at least to some degree, from the travel advice changes. One of the important things for the FCO to do is to give clear and decisive travel advice. That is one of the benefits of the statement that we have made today.
I certainly take on board the hon. Gentleman’s comments about working with the Secretary of State for Transport and the Chancellor to make sure that we provide support to the airline sector, which is not only important for jobs—we also need it to help get UK nationals home. For the reasons I gave in my statement, we want to allow them to do that through normal commercial means.
This crisis is causing us to tear apart many aspects of the global system that we have grown used to in the past 20 or 30 years. The threat that it could pose to future scientific co-operation and future defence against not only pandemics such as this, but the poverty that has blighted so much of the world over recent generations, is enormous.
Will the Foreign Secretary assure me that, as he is planning with his Foreign Office partners and staff to rescue and save so many people around the world, he is also looking to co-operate with others to make sure that the international community works together to build a proper future, based on a shared and prosperous globe?
I thank my hon. Friend the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. He is absolutely right about the consular measures that we are taking to support UK nationals who feel vulnerable or stranded overseas. I also agree with him about the need for an international approach to pandemics such as this; we have not seen anything like this before. That is why we are providing support to build up the capacity in some of the most vulnerable countries. We are doing that with a total envelope of up to £241 million of aid funding and we are working through the World Health Organisation, the Red Cross, UNICEF and other organisations.
More generally, the Prime Minister spoke to his counterparts in the G7 yesterday. They agreed on the importance of a stronger co-ordinated international approach, and that will include everything from economic measures to research and development to make sure that there is the collaboration that will prevent further pandemics from happening.
Our consular staff are doing an amazing job and many of them around the world are volunteers—they are not paid for their work. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will pass on our gratitude on behalf of all our constituents.
May I tease out the issue of people returning home? As I understand the Foreign Secretary’s advice, it is that if somebody is thinking about travelling abroad now, they should bear in mind that they may not be able to get back. But at the same time he is saying that people should not necessarily come back now. That seems to be inconsistent.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he said about consular staff; we will pass that on. It does matter that we have cross-party support for the essential work that all our public services are doing.
The hon. Gentleman asked about travel advice. Obviously, we are advising against all but essential travel globally. It is up to individuals to make the individual judgment calls, which will depend on their personal circumstances and on the availability of commercial flights. In the last resort, we have been able to provide repatriation flights, but that is getting more difficult. We will continue to provide support and advice, but ultimately some of those judgment calls will remain a decision for the individual.
I would like to follow up what the Secretary of State was saying about ferries and the Department for Transport in relation to the UK. I have two questions. Will the Government please relax competition law today to allow discussion between the three cross-Solent ferry operators to build a resilience plan? They will be in breach of the law if they do not, and lives could depend on this if our ferry services fall over.
Secondly, will the Government support today the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to allow people to sit in cars during ferry journeys in the UK, to protect at-risk groups and for social distancing purposes?
As ever, my hon. Friend raises important and excellent practical points. They are mainly for the Secretary of State for Transport, but I reassure him that the Secretary of State is talking to the ferry operators as well as the airliners and working together to make sure that we get not just the clearest but the most practical advice, so that our constituents and people travelling to or from the UK can make the decisions that they need to make.
The Foreign Secretary is absolutely right: repatriation is a complex and costly business. But that is surely exactly why it should not just be left to individuals and why there must be a leading role for Government.
Like many MPs, I have had representations this morning from constituents. Some of mine are on holiday in Morocco and now find themselves stranded. The ambassador’s Twitter account is telling them just to go to the airport with their passports and tickets and see what they can fix up when they get there. We realise that the consular services are under stress, but surely at this moment they have to have every possible resource to provide the best possible information for our constituents.
I totally agree with the right hon. Gentleman. We are providing the very best support, care and advice. When it comes to repatriations, at the outset we secured 200, I think, who came back from China. We are also working to secure the return of people on the Braemar cruise ship via Havana; it has been the most intense diplomacy I have had with my Cuban opposite number—and hugely welcome, because the Cuban Government have been very co-operative. We will do everything we can.
The situation is very fluid. The decisions being made on the ground in countries such as the one that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned often happen rapidly. The challenge for airlines, the FCO and the consular advice and support that we provide is to make sure that we can respond—not just as quickly as possible, but as effectively as possible.
We talk about the different approach being taken by different countries, but the UK has to focus on what is right for our country at the right time. Uniquely, we are using behavioural science; many are not doing so. We need the right response for our culture and the way our people behave—not one transported from another country.
My hon. Friend makes a really important point. I take the point, raised in the Chamber, that we need to try to get better and more effective international co-ordination. That is what the Prime Minister was pressing for when he spoke to his opposite numbers in the G7 by phone and what I have been pressing for at the Foreign Office. At the same time, in the last analysis we will take the right measures. Every country is a bit different depending on where it is on the curve. Crucially, we will take the right and most effective decisions at the right time. That is why we have changed our travel advice today and why the Prime Minister announced new measures yesterday.
The Foreign Secretary rightly said that the Government do not want British nationals to be stranded overseas, but has referred to the practical difficulties of getting them all home. What are the exceptional circumstances in which the Government would be prepared to act to bring British nationals home? That will help inform decisions that individuals make about any travel plans they have.
Constituents reading the FCO travel advice ought to take it on its own terms, not on the basis of any potential, last-resort contingency measures that may be taken down the line. Obviously, we are very mindful of the vulnerability of all our constituents, such as those on the Braemar cruise ship, which has struggled to find a place to dock so that we can repatriate the substantial number of UK nationals back to the UK.
The decision will have to be taken on an individual basis by all our constituents and people up and down the country. What we do is provide the clearest guidance. Unless there is a very good reason—an essential reason—to travel, we are saying, “Don’t take the risk now, because you are at a heightened risk of being stranded in the future.”
The Iranian Foreign Minister has been issuing plaintive appeals on social media for medical supplies to assist in his sanctions-hit country. Setting aside Javad Zarif’s accompanying rant against America, what does my right hon. Friend think can be done to assist the people of Iran at this difficult time, particularly around sanctions, the joint comprehensive plan of action and the International Military Services debt?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for his excellent tenure as Minister. I thoroughly enjoyed working with him and of course he is an expert in this field. Let us be very clear about it: ultimate responsibility for the predicament that Iran faces lies with the Government in Iran and the decisions and choices they have made. We have supported Iran in relation to coronavirus with aid funding because we recognise that this is an exceptional time and an exceptional period, but, fundamentally, beyond the humanitarian assistance and other aid funding that we would provide in those circumstances, the decisions that Iran takes will be the ones that will get it out of the hole or cul-de-sac that it is in. In particular, right now, as I made clear to the Foreign Minister on the phone yesterday, we expect UK dual nationals in detention in Iran to be released as soon as possible, not least given the heightened risk from covid-19 in those prisons.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for updating the House on coronavirus and people overseas. I have constituents in Morocco as well and one family are with a four-month-old baby. Are there any plans to bring people back from Morocco? Would such exceptional circumstances contribute to any of the decisions that the Government will make?
Anyone in those circumstances will feel anxious and distressed. We will certainly see if we can provide as much support as possible, consular and otherwise, to the hon. Lady’s constituents. If she would like to contact me afterwards, or any of the ministerial team, we will take up that case directly. More generally, it will always depend on the restrictions being imposed, partly by the Governments themselves, including in Morocco, and on the availability of commercial airlines coming out.
What we want to do and what I have been working with the Transport Secretary to achieve is to give clear advice to our constituents as consumers of travel services, but also to make sure that we are leaving the window open for commercial airlines to operate, because that is the surest means of getting people back from difficult or vulnerable positions. That is the only way we are going to be able to achieve it, so we need to keep those commercial lines operating.
My right hon. Friend and all the team are working so hard, as are our consular services, but unfortunately we are hearing about certain embassies being shut. The embassy in Kiev is shut and it is £1.80 a minute to phone the FCO hotline and there is a 58-minute delay. Is there anything else that my hon. Friends can do to help my constituent who is stuck in Kiev?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her work at the FCO, where she was a doughty Foreign Minister. There is a whole range of practical details about how we can support our constituents who find themselves in difficult positions. I can certainly ask the Minister covering the wider European neighbourhood to see what further can be done in her case. There is travel advice online and a specific hotline for parliamentarians. I do not know whether she has had a chance to access that yet. If any further support can be given, I am very happy to ensure that I and the ministerial team provide it.
I add my thanks to the FCO staff, who are working under really difficult circumstances. Can the Foreign Secretary advise my constituents, Tony and Jill Low, who are currently stuck in Cyprus? Their flights are cancelled and their hotel room needs vacating. Their insurance is about to expire and the insurance company is only offering to pay retrospective costs when they return to the UK.
We will look at all of these cases and, in particular, where there is a groundswell of UK nationals and constituents being stranded. As I have already informed the House, we are trying to make sure that the reasons why those flights are not running in and out can be addressed. Domestic measures have been announced, and the EU announced measures yesterday that exempt the United Kingdom, so that is welcome. We will continue to work with those local authorities, but also with the airlines to make sure that there are as many flights as possible to relieve constituents such as those of the hon. Lady.
May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the calm way he is dealing with a historic situation? May I raise a point about insurance that was also raised by those on the SNP Benches? Headteachers across the land have organised trips along with parents, who put in a lot of money. A school in my constituency has spent £140,000 getting children out skiing. The insurance companies are referring them to the travel companies, and the travel companies are saying that there is no chance of getting the money back unless the FCO specifically restricts travel to that location. Could my right hon. Friend clarify to all schools across the land, not just those in my constituency, what the situation is and what chance they have of getting their money back?
I thank my hon. Friend for the way in which he has raised his question. The insurance industry makes its decisions in a commercial way, and obviously we and the Transport Secretary are liaising very closely with it, but certainly the call has been made to the Foreign Office to give as clear advice as possible. So we are advising, not least with the Easter holidays coming up, against all but essential travel globally. We are not going to make decisions for individual people, families or schools, but it seems to me that those are the kinds of trips that would now have to be looked at, and we would expect the insurance and the airline industries to follow, based on that very clear advice that we have now given.
The Foreign Secretary mentioned that the Government have been consulting with the G7, but they have not been consulting with European Governments through the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. May I ask: apart from ideological reasons, why not? It is very concerned that the focus here has been on behavioural science and not on epidemiology.
The hon. Lady asks a perfectly reasonable question. May I reassure her that we are taking the best scientific advice that we have got in the UK? The circumstances in different countries will change. Part of that is about the timing and the peak within which coronavirus hits an individual country. She talked about co-operation with EU partners. I am consistently on the phone talking to all our European partners about all these issues, whether that is the multilateral drive to tackle coronavirus with support for vulnerable countries, research and development, or the particular logistical issues with getting constituents home. The diplomacy with our European friends has never been more intense.
My constituent Jamie Harris is stranded on MS Ocean Endeavour off the coast of Argentina. She is travelling independently, so has no recourse to a tour operator and flights from Argentina to Europe have been stopped. Will my right hon. Friend consider working with flight companies such as British Airways—there are many others—to look at ways that we can bring constituents home when there simply is no other alternative for them?
My right hon. Friend makes a good point. For those in South America more generally, there has been a range of concerns in different countries. Fundamentally, we want to encourage, as I have explained, commercial operators to keep running because that is the way of easily repatriating people at scale. But of course we will look and liaise with the airline operators—the Transport Secretary is already doing that—to make sure that, where there are gaps, we can always provide as much support as possible for vulnerable or stranded constituents.
My constituent Sarah Goodman is stuck in Morocco. She travelled with friends just on Saturday and is now subject to a ban. I have also heard from students on years abroad who are stranded. Can the Secretary of State work on his website to update British nationals who find themselves stranded abroad? Can there be a global strategy because there must be people from abroad stuck in our own country who would like to return home?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Another Member has raised the issue of Morocco. The Africa Minister will look at those cases and I am sure will be happy, able and willing to look at the case that the right hon. Gentleman raises. He makes a good point about communication. We are constantly looking to ensure, through the helpline and the online advice, that people can get advice in real time. Constituents and Members can sign up to receive email updates so that they get them all. They can also follow on Twitter and Facebook. There is an inherent challenge, which is the pace at which some of these changes are being made, but we are doing everything we can to ensure that we give updated FCO advice in real time.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Have there been any discussions with the oil and gas sector or individual oil and gas companies, given the huge number of British nationals and their families—many of whom come from north-east Scotland—working and living overseas?
My hon. Friend rightly raises the issue of employees in that sector. We are engaging closely with the big employers around the world. Those individuals are in—I say this carefully—in a relatively more comfortable position than others who are travelling for a short period or temporarily, so the priority has been the most vulnerable or those who might find themselves at risk of being stranded. That is why we have given this advice today, but my hon. Friend is right, and we are engaging with substantial employers overseas to see how we can work together to provide the best support for our constituents.
I pay tribute to FCO staff, including the one who took my call at midnight last night to deal with my constituent’s son, who is trapped in Guatemala City, where the British embassy appears to be closed and no commercial flights are operating. I urge the Foreign Secretary to change one thing that came out of that call. The FCO does not appear to be taking details of British citizens who are trapped abroad, including whether they have any special needs, medical needs or conditions. Without that information, we will not be able to triage for emergency repatriation flights, emergency assistance and so on. Will he ensure that the FCO starts taking that information, to build up a database, so that we know exactly how many British citizens are trapped and where, and what their conditions are?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm words about the FCO’s efforts and the practical advice he has given us; we will certainly take that back. One point I will mention is that we are not talking about tens of thousands—we are talking about hundreds of thousands abroad. We need to work up as granular a picture of the vulnerabilities as possible, but we also—this is a contributing factor to the change in the travel advice—need to give a clear message, given the scale of the challenge and the unprecedented nature of covid-19, that people need to be realistic about what we can do.
Following the Foreign Secretary’s comments about Iran, does he know whether Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is among the political prisoners whom Iran has released today? Does not the ability of a highly dangerous disease to spread through a prison highlight the immorality of detaining people who are wholly innocent?
My right hon. Friend did an incredible job as Foreign Secretary, in particular in pressing for the release of not just Nazanin, but all our dual nationals suffering in Tehran. I spoke to the Iranian Foreign Minister yesterday. I have made it clear, not least as Iran considers releasing prisoners on a pretty large scale, that there is no excuse for not releasing all the UK dual nationals on furlough. We are waiting for confirmation regarding individual cases, and I want to be careful and to wait until I have confirmation, but I assure my right hon. Friend that this is a high priority for the Government. As I said, I raised it with Foreign Minister Zarif yesterday.
I compliment the Foreign Secretary on making it clear that essential travel includes the freight services that will keep our supermarkets stocked with food. While I recognise that the Department for Transport will be dealing with this, can he reassure those who undertake long-haul freight travel through Europe to get our food supplies to us that they will not be stranded?
I thank the hon. Lady for the way in which she asked her question and for complimenting the FCO consular advice. She is right—I talked about this with the Transport Secretary and the Prime Minister this morning—about the importance of not only keeping freight flowing, but ensuring that we safeguard the workers who are doing that. I want to give some reassurance in relation to the recommendations announced by the President of the European Commission yesterday, which will be considered by the European Council today, in relation to the 30-day travel ban for all but essential travel: medical staff and transporters of goods would be exempt, as well as UK nationals.
My constituent, Kate Jackson, is currently aboard the Silversea cruise liner that has been refused entry to a number of ports. It is now headed to Darwin, Australia, where it is expected to be able to dock, but there are no available flights back to the UK. Will my right hon. Friend do all that he can to repatriate Kate Jackson and her fellow British citizens?
I am aware of that case and we are working actively on it. As with all the cruise ships, the challenge has been to find a place for them to dock and then, not least given the international component of these cruise ships, to get international commercial flights home. We are very much focused on it, and I hope to be able to say more about that particular cruise ship shortly.
The last thing that our country and economy need on top of coronavirus is the further shock of a hard or no-deal Brexit at the end of this year. Will the Foreign Secretary and his EU colleagues urgently agree an extension to the current Brexit transition period so that the Government and business can focus 100% on the emergency in front of us?
If anything, this shows—not least in our collaboration with the Cuban Government which, at the level of intensity it has shown in recent days, does not happen very often with our close European partners—the case for intensive diplomacy to get this deal done, move on and take the relationship to the next step.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Can he give reassurances to my constituent, Tracy Wood, who contacted me last night regarding her son? He is a Manchester University placement student, currently in Panama. There are no flights in and out of Panama. He is running out of money, and the embassy has advised him to travel via another country. He simply does not know where to go, because he does not know which border will close next. Could the Foreign Secretary provide Mrs Wood with reassurance?
It is very difficult in those circumstances, particularly travelling to less accessible places. We will work closely with all the airliners and our network of embassies to provide support and advice as soon as possible. I am happy to look at that specific case, and if my right hon. Friend gives me the details, we will take that forward with the ministerial team.
Three of my constituents from Bargoed are stranded in Krakow, and because Poland has closed its international borders, they do not know how long they will be in that country. Will the Secretary of State put together a comprehensive database of all British citizens who are affected in that way and ensure that basic communication is sent to all those individuals in the not-too-distant future?
We already have a means of doing that: people can sign up for real-time updates, and hon. Members can do that. I appreciate the difficult situation in Poland. As I have said, we are working with all our European colleagues to ensure that UK nationals or other nationals who are here can get home when they need to.
I praise the Foreign Secretary for his statesmanlike approach, and I thank the SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith), for his constructive approach. It is good to see Opposition politicians rising to the occasion, just as our constituents want us to during this crisis.
I have constituents stranded in Morocco and Vietnam. Can we ensure that helplines in consulates and embassies are manned 24 hours a day to help our constituents? I also have constituents who are in a motorhome in Portugal and looking to get home. Can we ensure that provisions are made for crossing borders for those wanting to come home?
I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of having, within the confines of a democratic institution such as this, a constructive approach, because that will make the process more effective. We will look carefully at all the issues that he raised. He mentioned Vietnam as one of the difficult areas. As Ministers have made clear, we are aware of a number of British nationals in quarantine—some in hotels; some in other quarantine facilities. We are in close contact with the Vietnamese authorities. We are providing assistance to all those affected, and we hope to see them moved to improved and better facilities as soon as possible. That is just one illustration, in pretty challenging conditions, of where we are working hard to ensure that his constituents and many others get the care, advice and support they need.
After listening to contributions from Members on both sides of the House, it is very clear that citizens are stuck in many and varied countries far across the world. What plans does the Secretary of State have to work with European partners specifically to bring people in far-flung places back as part of a partnership approach?
The hon. Member makes an excellent point; we do need to work in partnership. We did that in relation to the flights from Wuhan at the outset of the crisis, if I can put it that way, and we have done it in relation to the Braemar cruise ship. In fact, my instinctive reflex, and the instinctive reaction of this Government, wherever UK nationals are stranded and we have more airline capacity to get them home, is to make sure that the nationals of our European and Five Eyes partners can get on them as well. We have good collaborative arrangements—it has been a two-way relationship—and all that will continue.
I am most grateful to the Foreign Secretary for his very comprehensive and thorough statement. I appreciate that this might be an issue for other Departments, but will he clarify the position regarding private planes—whether commercial or leisure—flying in to local airfields?
I think that that is probably one for the Department for Transport. I was not clear whether my hon. Friend was asking about the use of private planes for repatriation, or about whether the restrictions are being extended to them. In any event, I probably ought to pass that on to the experts—the Department for Transport.
The Foreign Secretary is stating quite openly that the Government will not bring everyone home, so how is he working with operators such as TUI to ensure that they act responsibly and do not leave people stranded abroad without communications, like my constituent Michelle Choi in Morocco?
It is not so much that we will not; it is just a pure question of capacity, given the potential range of hundreds of thousands of UK nationals travelling temporarily abroad. We will liaise very closely with the country—I think the hon. Gentleman was raising the issue of Morocco—and look carefully at what more can be done. The Africa Minister is nodding earnestly, and I know we will take that up. We are also, of course—the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to nail this point—trying to work with airlines to make sure, as these travel restrictions come into place, that there is a window in which the commercial airlines can come in and get as many as possible of the people who want to come out and back to the UK.
I agree with the Foreign Secretary that we cannot repatriate everybody; it is just physically impossible. Following on from the very good question asked by the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) about exceptional circumstances, may I ask about those who are most vulnerable? Given that we have been told by our own Prime Minister that we are at war with an invisible enemy—the covid-19 virus—what discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with the Ministry of Defence about deploying the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy, and even about using bases around the world as staging posts if need be, when the international airlines further restrict flights, to repatriate the most vulnerable—not everybody, but the most vulnerable?
Obviously I have engaged very closely with the Defence Secretary on this, but something like that would be a last resort. We do not rule anything out at this stage, but our focus—I think this is the point that the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) and others have made—has been on making sure that we are working very closely with not just the international airlines, but other countries. This is happening with some of the cruise shops we are dealing with from which we have not yet repatriated, because we can work together as an international team to try to get UK nationals back. That partnership will definitely involve Governments around the world, and also airlines around the world.
One of my female constituents is currently stuck in Istanbul. All flights from the UK to Turkey have been cancelled till mid-April. The airline, Pegasus, is not being helpful, and she has been told that she has only a 25% chance of getting home. The Secretary of State’s hotline has advised that she keeps in touch with the airline but, as I have said, it is not being helpful—nor has the consular support in Istanbul—and she does not have any insurance. What support can the Government give her?
I thank the hon. Lady. It is very distressing, and as MPs we obviously want to do everything we can. I am very happy to look at that case, and I will ask the Minister for Europe to take a close look. We will, of course, continue to liaise with the Turkish authorities and with as many as possible of the airlines that go to Istanbul, or indeed to Ankara, to try to make sure that people do not find themselves in that vulnerable position.
A constituent of mine has been in touch about his grandparents, Alan and Beatrice. Beatrice is 86 and Alan is 89, and they are trapped on board the Silver Shadow cruise ship, which is quarantined off Recife in Brazil. May I appeal to the Foreign Secretary for his help to get Alan and Beatrice home?
We have been following the course of the Silver Shadow very carefully. I can tell my right hon. Friend that there are 300 passengers on board, of whom about 120 are British nationals—that goes to my earlier point about the need for an international team effort. Royal Caribbean, the parent company of the ship, has indicated that it will offer at least three charter flights to get passengers home—one to the UK, one to the US and one to Canada, and possibly also one to Australia. That gives my right hon. Friend a sense of not just the challenge we face, but how we are straining every sinew to deal with constituents such as her own.
I would like to add my voice to those thanking FCO workers, who I am sure are working around the clock. I am sure that they are wanting to get home, but they are staying to help others. I have been listening very carefully to what the Secretary of State has been saying about repatriation, and I understand his arguments about the airlines, but we have to accept that the reason why the airlines are not running flights is that they cannot afford to, and they are worried about coming out of this at the other end. Would he consider providing a subsidy for the airlines to enable them to run these flights, particularly from areas where flights have been cancelled or shut down completely?
The hon. Lady raises a really important point. On the one hand, we do want commercial airlines to fly, but they are clearly under severe financial pressure, given the domestic restrictions being placed on them, and indeed other Governments, including our own, changing their travel advice. We will work with the airlines to see what support we can provide, and our priority continues to be to make sure that commercial flights can access as many areas as possible to get people back in the kind of scale and volume that is necessary to address the challenge we face.
It is good to know that we now have clarity on global travel over the next 30 days. To put constituents’ minds at rest, can my right hon. Friend confirm that travel agents and airlines should be issuing refunds to those cancelling travel arrangements over the next 30 days, not particularly the insurance companies?
I will not give legal advice or commercial advice to either the operators or the insurers, but I can tell my hon. Friend that the Transport Secretary has engaged very closely with all the different sectors to make sure that we protect the consumers—passengers—who find themselves at risk. Indeed, the Transport Secretary is nodding earnestly on that very point.
Quite rightly, hon. Members have mentioned the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Iran, but may I ask the Foreign Office not to lose sight of people such as Luke Symons, my constituent, who is held captive by the Houthis in Yemen at this time? Can any pressure be brought through the channel of discussions with the Iranian authorities? I welcome the new Middle East Minister to his post, and I hope that he will get into the detail of this case, as his predecessor did.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Just to be clear, when we speak to any of our Iranian interlocutors, we raise every case of dual nationals—or, indeed, the British Council employee—who have been detained. Of course, that applies consistently across the board, and I know the Middle East Minister will be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the specific case. I will always be willing to raise it, and to try to secure the release of all our nationals and dual nationals in such terrible conditions across the world.
I have two separate cases of constituents stranded in Peru, one of whom is a young woman travelling on her own. I understand the stress that our consular service is under at the moment, but those people cannot get through to the embassy, nor to the emergency hotline. Will my right hon. Friend look at their cases urgently and do all that he can to get them home?
I thank my hon. Friend, and of course we will look at those cases. In areas where we do not have a large or substantial consular presence, we are obviously going to have to innovate and still provide practical advice and consular support as best we can. I know that the relevant Minister will be very happy to meet her and take forward those cases, and I am very happy to raise them with my interlocutors.
What discussions is the Foreign Secretary having with the Home Secretary about foreign nationals in this country who find themselves in a similar situation? I have a constituent who is self-isolating in line with the guidance, yet she is being told that her visa will be over-stayed and that she needs to leave the country. What thought are the Government giving to these kinds of situations, especially if, when such people get to the end of their quarantine, there are no flights home?
Of course, we have foreign nationals here who are in very similar positions to the ones that UK nationals themselves are in around the world. We will of course look at those cases as sympathetically and constructively as possible. We know what it is like, from all the cases that we have coming through to the FCO and through to our consular services. I have already raised this issue with the Home Office and the Home Secretary, but we will reaffirm it based on what the hon. Gentleman said today.
The Foreign Secretary spoke earlier about hundreds of thousands of UK nationals abroad, many of whom are travelling home, which might be taking longer than they expected. Can the Foreign Office be clear about any reciprocal medical arrangements in place in those areas? Many of those cases are UK citizens living in EU states, with which we were formerly partnered. Given that this morning the Chief Medical Officer said that this situation might last for 18 months, will the Foreign Secretary ask former EU partners to consider an elongation of our current reciprocal arrangements?
I thank my hon. Friend for the dual way in which he asked an excellent question, and also managed subtly to leverage in the whole question of Brexit phase 2 negotiations. He will know that reciprocal arrangements are in place until the end of the transition period, and any continuation beyond that is for the negotiators to consider. We will always ensure that we provide as much support as possible for UK nationals on the continent, as well as for EU nationals here.
Many constituents have contacted me about the differing approaches in other countries, not least to the issue of testing. I appreciate that different countries are at different stages of the outbreak, but can the Foreign Secretary reassure me that expertise and experience from all round the world will be fed into our approach on a daily basis?
The hon. Gentleman is right to note that different countries are acting in different ways, and as he says, some of that is because they are at different stages of the peak and trough of dealing with coronavirus. Based on my attendance at Cobra meetings, I reassure him that not only are we following the best UK scientific evidence available, but that that in itself taps into the widest possible research base, and the widest range of experts, regarding how to effectively stop the spread of the disease.
Members of the House, and journalists outside it, are perfectly at liberty to ask what lessons we have learned from our European partners, but it is worth reminding the House that the Chief Medical Officer who is leading the response to this crisis is a professor of epidemiology. He is literally the right man in the right job at the right time. The Foreign Secretary updated the House on his conversations with our European partners, but will he also update it on his conversations with other international partners such as the US, and other global institutions?
My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to Professor Whitty, and along with Sir Patrick Vallance we have some of the finest expert evidence in the world coming to us. On the broader point, yes, we are talking to our European partners, and UK nationals are in European countries—particularly Spain and France, but also other countries—in large numbers. I reassure my hon. Friend that I am talking to my opposite numbers around the world, from central America to Asia-Pacific and North America, both Canada and the United States, and we will continue to do that.
Those of us who represent large numbers of EU citizens are hearing concerning accounts of what is happening in their home countries. There are towns in northern Italy, of a similar size to many of our constituencies, that have seen thousands of cases of the virus, and hundreds of deaths. I assume the Foreign Secretary is getting similar responses from our embassies around the world. Are those being used to inform the UK response, even if it involves a worst-case scenario?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we must learn from and try to understand more about covid-19 and what its impact will be in the UK, based on the experience that we are seeing in real time across the world, and that is being fed in via scientists and the Department of Health and Social Care. We are ensuring that we have practical advice at the end of that pipeline, which is why we have taken the decision on travel advice today.
Will the Secretary of State please reassure the House that appropriate medical support is readily available for British Government and military personnel overseas, and that specialist medical evacuation will be available for them in extremis?
We take very seriously the security and protection of all UK personnel in the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence, and the Department for International Development, both in the UK and across the network. We will do everything we can to ensure that they are able do the heroic job that they are doing right now in safe and secure conditions.
This measure is entirely commensurate with the situation we face, and I support it. However, as the Member of Parliament for Glasgow airport, and the thousands of jobs that it supports, may I ask what assessment the Government have made of the impact of covid-19 measures on the industry, by which I mean airlines, airports, baggage handlers and so on—the list could go on? What will the Government do to support that industry?
The Government are very conscious of the challenge facing the airline industry and its related sectors, and the Foreign Office must ensure that it takes what I think the hon. Gentleman described as a commensurate policy approach, given the knock-on effects that that will have. As well as speaking with the Prime Minister, I talk regularly, as I did this morning, with the Secretary of State for Transport, and he liaises directly with airports and airlines. We are ensuring that we take the most proportionate approach possible. Ultimately, we must ensure that we protect UK nationals based abroad, but also that we protect the industry that will help them get home.
I echo the compliments from across the House for UK consular staff overseas. I recognise that they have limited resources, but will my right hon. Friend consider whether there is any scope for them to offer at least a basic service at weekends?
I reassure my hon. Friend that Foreign Office staff are working round the clock and around weekends, but in some of those countries there is an issue about their own personal safety. We are giving advice here. It is important that Ministers and officials follow that advice, but we must also look after and protect their safety. Notwithstanding that, there is certainly not a nine-to-five or Monday-to-Friday approach—far from it. This is round the clock and right through the weekend, and we are straining every sinew to ensure that constituents, however far flung the place in which they find themselves, are getting the most support, the clearest guidance, and the best practical help that we can provide.
To follow the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), may I press the Foreign Secretary on the talks on the future relationship with the European Union? Those incredibly complex and multi-faceted talks are absorbing a tremendous amount of Government time and attention. Rather than trying to fight a war on two fronts, and stretching Government bandwidth to breaking point, surely the time is coming to request an extension to the transition period. It is better to do that than to put ideology ahead of the health and safety of the British people.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman would never put his ideological desire to stay in the EU ahead of the practical diplomacy that we face in the months ahead. I understand why he has asked that question. As far as I am aware, negotiations can still proceed, given all the logistical arrangements we have in place. We are confident that we can get this done, and I do not think that delaying Brexit negotiations would give anyone on either side of the channel the certainty they need.
I echo the concerns of other colleagues about the situation for British nationals in Peru, where I have a constituent with a serious underlying health condition who is stranded. As we have heard, not only is the British embassy apparently closed, but the phone number that people have been told to use to obtain information is apparently not being answered. In addition to information about how they can be assisted to leave the country, people need assistance and information while they remain there, including on access to health care. Will the Foreign Secretary take a careful look at the situation in Peru?
I thank the hon. Lady for the constructive and detailed way in which she raised the case of her constituent, and I am happy to look at such cases. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Wendy Morton) has already indicated that she will take up some of the other cases in Peru, and we will do everything we can to provide that support and advice, and to provide those who need to return with the means to do so.
I have written to the right hon. Gentleman about my constituent, Eddie, who is 19 and stranded in Morocco, and I hope he will intervene to bring him, and others, home. Travel is also vital for the nation’s supplies, and 45% of the food that Britain eats comes from overseas and is imported. Will the Government do two things? First, will they make a statement, very soon, to say how they will protect those supply lines to give the nation confidence in its food supplies? Secondly, will they do everything they can to back Britain’s farmers so that they can increase production to keep us all well fed?
I will of course look at the case of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent very carefully—a number of other Moroccan cases have been raised—and get back to him with as clear a steer as possible. He is right to raise all those issues about supply chains; again, that was one of the issues I discussed with the Transport Secretary. The hon. Gentleman will have heard that the changes I announced to the travel advice will not apply to freight. We are very mindful in everything we do about keeping supply chains open, and we will continue to look at that. He also makes an important point about food supply and, frankly, the opportunities for UK-based suppliers to rise to meet some of the demand as supply is curtailed as a result of covid-19.
I have written to the Secretary of State regarding a constituent stranded in Austria. I am told that there is a lack of testing kits and there are issues with travelling back. There is already chaos with repatriation, even before the majority of countries move into emergency lockdown phases or close their tourist venues. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the Foreign Office has all the resources it needs to provide extra consular support, and that it is very likely that UK nationals will be caught up in these fast-moving situations?
We will of course look very carefully at any case. The hon. Gentleman has written to me all about constituents in Austria. There is no doubt that the Foreign Office, as with the rest of the Government—most obviously the NHS—will come under pressure. The key thing is that we have the means and the agility to prioritise, to ensure that dealing with covid-19 is the top priority as we go through this challenge. I am very clear that the Foreign Office will do everything we can to protect our constituents—UK nationals abroad—and ensure that we work with our international partners to rise to this challenge, get through it and then move on, so we can get back to some semblance of normality.
I thank the Secretary of State for his commitment and for his and his staff’s sterling efforts on our behalf. We are encouraged by what he has said today. On the island of Ireland, both north and south, people travel to attend churches—people from Northern Ireland travel southwards, for example—in order to preach and participate in meetings. Can the Secretary of State give us some direction about what should happen? People across Northern Ireland wish to know whether they should attend their churches, or whether their churches should be suspended or closed. What should we do? I believe that the people of this great nation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, should pray to their God for help at this time. This is a time for prayer. Will the Secretary of State join me and others in supporting that call?
I totally understand the point the hon. Gentleman makes. The obvious thing is to keep following the Government’s medical advice and, in relation to devolved matters, the advice given by the Northern Ireland Executive. I can also give him reassurance in relation to the latest announcement by the Irish Government that all persons entering Ireland from overseas will be asked to self-quarantine for 14 days. That will not apply to Northern Ireland, by virtue of the land border. The Irish believe that, as a result of the land border, they can maintain social distancing. I hope that that gives his constituents and, indeed, the people of Northern Ireland a measure of reassurance.
I appreciate that the Foreign Secretary may have to raise this issue with colleagues, but people are naturally drawing comparisons between actions in this country—the advice against going to pubs, restaurants and places of entertainment, for example—with the position in France and other countries, where such visits are banned completely. Does he appreciate that that causes confusion for people, and that businesses in this country are more likely to be at risk of failure because of the less rigorous position we are taking?
I understand the point the hon. Gentleman raises. It is a fair question, but we have taken that position, first, because we are following the scientific advice that applies to the UK, and secondly, because covid-19 is affecting different countries at different paces and some of them are at a different place on the curve in terms of the spread of coronavirus. We will make the right decisions at the right time, in the best interests of people in this country, including our businesses, and we will do so based on the scientific advice, which carefully takes into account the different approaches and the different pace at which countries are trying to deal with coronavirus in Europe and across the world.
Although I am hugely appreciative of the pressure that consular staff are under, for everybody who has a loved one—particularly a vulnerable loved one—trapped in this situation, it is the end of the world. I have a constituent on the Silver Spirit cruise ship outside Darwin who is 78 years old and in extremely poor health. We are told that there are issues with the financial viability of the cruise line and the safety of supplies. I have a constituent in Peru who has multiple problems and whose mother is desperate. I had a case in from Morocco this morning; they are coming in every few hours. Can the Minister help with those cases, and can he assure us that capacity is being reviewed so we can urgently upscale it, at least for the coming weeks?
I reassure the hon. Lady that, in both the cases she referred to, we are actively looking at the solutions we can provide for UK nationals. She is right to raise the issue of scalable support. I am making sure that all the resource available will be focused on coronavirus in the weeks ahead, so of course there is an element of scalability. We have the resilience to get through this crisis, and I am confident that we will.
Another case of people stuck in Morocco was raised with me today—that of a family with three young children. I understand they were due to fly back on 24 March, but flights have been suspended. May I have clarity on when they can come home to Glasgow? They are stockpiling food and just do not know when they will be able to get back. What advice can the Secretary of State offer?
The Africa Minister has already made it clear that he will follow up on all those cases, so we will certainly look at the case of the hon. Lady’s constituents. I am writing to all hon. Members with practical advice about how they can stay up to date by following the real-time advice. We will continue to give the hon. Lady and all other hon. Members as much advice as swiftly as possible to provide for the safety but also the return of their constituents.
Many constituents up and down the country are doing the right and inevitable thing and cancelling Easter holidays, but far too many are doing the hokey-cokey between travel agents, the FCO advice and insurance companies. What more can the Secretary of State do to give people a nudge in the right direction?
I think the clarity of the advice we have given today will provide the nudge, to use the hon. Gentleman’s expression. The most important thing we can do for our constituents, the airline industry and, indeed, the insurers is to give clear advice. We have done that. We advise against all but essential global travel, and I am confident that the airline industry and the insurers will take the responsible approach in response.
I agree with the advice that non-essential passenger travel should be halted. The Foreign Secretary said that air freight channels should remain. The thing about air freight is that so much of it goes on passenger-carrying planes, so the empty seats have to be paid for by either the industry or the Government. What work have the Government done to identify critical routes, critical airlines and the support packages required to keep freight channels and the airlines going?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I have discussed that issue with the Transport Secretary, who is in conversation with the airlines. The hon. Gentleman is right that there is not a clear division between freight and passenger travel; they often go on the same aircraft. We are very conscious of that, and we will work with the industry to ensure that we can chart as sustainable a path ahead as possible, but we have to take—
Of course time is critical. We are in daily touch with all the relevant interlocutors, including the airlines and airports, but it is important that we take this measure now, not least given some of the comments that have been made in the House about travel arrangements over the Easter period.
Like many of my constituents, I have a family member stuck abroad—in my case, an older aunt stuck in the US. I certainly look forward to her healthy return, along with that of the rest of my constituents’ family members, once a global strategy is in place. My right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) was right to highlight the global leadership and global response that is required. In that regard, is not one of the lessons we must learn from covid-19 the need for a joint mechanism to guide co-ordinated global efforts on the development, testing and roll-out of potential cures and vaccines, potentially with the establishment of a dedicated body responsible for that work? Will the Foreign Secretary undertake to look into that proposal?
I thank the hon. Lady for the emphasis she puts on international co-ordination. There are multilateral efforts to make sure we deal with everything from research and development of vaccines to capacity building for the most vulnerable countries. I am certainly happy to look at the details of any proposals if she wants to write to me. The challenge has been with different approaches, driven partly by different assessments of the risk, but also the pace at which coronavirus has spread and geography.
The Secretary of State mentioned the Irish Government’s announcement of a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine period. The Australian Prime Minister recently announced the same thing for passengers arriving in Australia from abroad. Is that an option the UK Government are actively considering?
That is, ultimately, the responsibility of the Home Secretary. What I can say to the hon. Lady is that, given the changes we are making to travel advice, it would not seem to be necessary and nor does the scientific advice we are getting suggest that that is a measure we should take at this time.