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British Citizens: Repatriation

Volume 676: debated on Monday 11 May 2020

What recent steps he has taken to repatriate (a) British citizens and (b) UK residents overseas during the covid-19 pandemic. (902369)

What steps he is taking to repatriate British nationals stranded overseas as a result of the covid-19 pandemic. (902379)

What steps he is taking to repatriate British nationals stranded overseas as a result of the covid-19 pandemic. (902384)

What diplomatic steps he is taking to help provide financial support to British nationals stranded overseas as a result of the covid-19 pandemic. (902386)

What recent steps he has taken to repatriate (a) British citizens and (b) UK residents overseas during the covid-19 pandemic. (902388)

What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the Government's response to British citizens stranded overseas as a result of the covid-19 pandemic. (902390)

We estimate that over 1.3 million people have now returned to the UK from abroad on commercial routes. I can also tell the House that on the charter flights—the special arrangements—that we set up, over 30,000 British nationals have now returned on 141 flights chartered from 27 countries and territories.

Many of my constituents who had their flights cancelled are facing considerable financial hardship as they are yet to see any refund for these flights or for hastily arranged alternative flights that were also cancelled. So will the Secretary of State guarantee that those whose flights have been cancelled will be refunded and that the Government will step in to make sure that this is the case?

We certainly share the concern expressed by the hon. Gentleman about flights that are cancelled. There is an onus on the operators to make sure that they can be reimbursed. Insurance can also kick in. In the last resort, there is also financial assistance that can be made available in the form of a loan, but of course that would have to be repaid on return.

Many of my constituents have said, “We’ve all been locked down but people have still been allowed to come into our country.” Why is the quarantine about to be launched at airports being done now, and will it include arrivals by port and the channel tunnel?

The reason the measure is being introduced now is that the advice that we have always had is that there was little point, if any, in introducing quarantine at the border with R—the level of the prevalence of the virus—at a high level, particularly above R1. Now that it has come down, and is still coming down even further, it makes sense, as we reduce the level of coronavirus in the UK, to introduce the measure to stop reinfection coming in from people carrying it from abroad, particularly those who would not necessarily be showing symptoms. There will be some flexibility in the detailed arrangements set out, but this will cover, in principle, all people coming in, whether it is to ports or to airports.

A number of my constituents were overseas when this pandemic struck and are now unable to get together the money they need to pay for new flights home. What action is my right hon. Friend’s Department taking to financially support British nationals who are unable to get home and have no access to funds?

We have, in the first instance, worked with insurance companies to make sure that they extend travel policies by 60 days when emergency support is needed. I can also tell the House that the Foreign Office has introduced a special package to make sure that those who are stranded and cannot get back can receive support with food, accommodation and other essentials of up to £3,000 for individuals, £4,000 for a couple, and £5,000 for families. That is a last-resort option, but we are making sure that those who are hunkered down or stranded and cannot get back have the support that they need.

I commend my right hon. Friend’s Department for the efforts made to get people home, but can he update the House on progress in getting passengers and crew stranded on cruise ships home?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. In March, when the Foreign Office changed its travel advice to advise against people travelling on cruises, we had more than 19,000 British passengers aboard 60 cruise ships. I can tell him that they have all now been brought home safely. There is still an outstanding issue with a number of UK crew on cruise ships around the world, but we are working with operators such as Royal Caribbean and Costa Atlantica to make sure they can get back as soon as possible.

I have a couple of constituents who were last heard of in the Philippines. They told me that they were struggling to afford the cost of repatriation flights to get home. What additional help can my right hon. Friend now offer them?

The Philippines has been a challenge, but I can reassure my hon. Friend that we managed to secure the return of over 600 British nationals on UK charter flights in April. I spoke to Foreign Minister Locsin at the end of March to secure those April flights. My hon. Friend will know that the Government of the Philippines suspended commercial flights earlier this month. They have resumed today. On the financial support that she referred to, in exceptional circumstances, as a last resort, there are loans available to enable UK nationals to return home on flights.

It is now clear that other European countries used emergency repatriation flights in parallel with commercial options to much greater success. The German Government chartered 30 times more of these flights by April than the UK Government, so it was the Foreign Secretary’s decision early on to rely almost solely on commercial options to get people home that left so many British citizens stranded abroad for so long. So will he publish the official advice that he received on his decision, which led to so many British citizens being stranded abroad for so long?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about any British nationals stranded abroad—Brits are a nation of travellers—but his comparison with Germany is not correct, because he is not including, as far as I understand it, all those who came back on commercial flights. We worked very hard with airlines, airports and foreign jurisdictions to enable that to happen. We have secured and helped to facilitate the return of 1.3 million British nationals on those commercial flights—50,000 from Australia, 15,000 from Pakistan, 7,000 from Indonesia and close to 4,000 from New Zealand.

I have constituents stuck in many countries, including Nigeria and Australia. The one in Nigeria says that he is No. 3,233 on the repatriation list, and only one of the Australian cases has reached home, at substantial personal cost. How can the Minister say that this is an adequate response?

In terms of Nigeria, we are concerned. It has been a challenge, but I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that over 1,700 British nationals have been repatriated to date, on seven charter flights, in addition to which a further flight came home on 8 May, and we will continue to do everything we can. Of course, he will know that all airports in Nigeria are currently closed to all international commercial flights until east of 4 June. That is the challenge we face, but we are doing everything we can.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker; I think that is the last time Chorley will be nice to Wigan in this place.

I thank the Minister for the weekly briefings that he has arranged for me and for his kind words on my taking office. It has enabled us to work together to bring many more Britons home. However, he will know that this is the sixth time that I have had to raise the lack of quarantine measures and the fact that the UK is one of the few countries with no specific policies in place for returning citizens. Thousands will be flying into the UK in the next few days from parts of the world where infection rates are rising and healthcare and testing are limited, on packed planes with no social distancing measures, and as of Wednesday many of them will be asked to go straight back to work. This really is absurd; so will he personally intervene to get a grip on this situation, not in a month, but now?

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments and welcome her to her position. I know that she has huge tenacity and will scrutinise everything that the Government are doing, but that she also looks forward to and enjoys engaging on a constructive basis; that will certainly be reciprocated on our side.

The crucial thing about the quarantine and self-isolation that the Prime Minister announced last night is that all the scientific evidence we received said there was little point in introducing it until we got the prevalence of the coronavirus and the level of transmission down. At that point, it does make sense to introduce it because of the risk of reinfection—or re-seeding, as it is sometimes referred to by the scientists—in the UK. I can reassure the hon. Lady that we have followed the scientific and medical advice at every step along the way.

Well spotted, Mr Speaker. It is good to see everyone.

I echo the shadow Foreign Secretary’s concern about the quarantine restrictions coming in. We need a lot more clarity on why they have not been brought in before now, and on what they are actually going to mean in practice for people who are making travel arrangements and for vulnerable people coming back and sharing concerns about their own health and the risk of passing the virus on to others. I would be grateful for more clarity on that.

Let me also pick up on the Foreign Secretary’s comments about the repatriation efforts to date. Now, I would not say that nothing has happened, but we need to acknowledge that the FCO’s response has been patchy and pretty stretched in parts. I have already called for an inquiry into this, so that we can learn lessons for the future. I think that we need to reiterate that point today, and would be grateful for an assurance that we will properly look at how the FCO has handled this situation. The expectations that were put upon the FCO by—

And the Foreign Office has got a grip of the problem as well. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. We have been stretched, and I think that that is the case for countries around the world. I talk to Foreign Ministers every day and every week, and we have had a shared challenge—but particularly with a great travelling nation like the United Kingdom. At the same time, working with those countries and with the airlines, we have returned 1.3 million Brits from abroad on commercial flights. We have now returned over 30,000 people on the charter flights that we have arranged. We have also got all those who were travelling on cruise ships back. The consular team at the Foreign Office and our networks around the world deserve great praise, but we take nothing for granted and are not complacent for a moment. We will keep up those efforts, with all the other scheduled flights and charter flights that we are looking into in order to return other stranded nationals.