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Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Volume 676: debated on Monday 11 May 2020

The Secretary of State was asked—

British Citizens: Repatriation

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.

Covid-19 Vaccine

What diplomatic steps the Government are taking to support the development of a covid-19 vaccine (a) in the UK and (b) throughout the world. (902375)

What diplomatic steps the Government are taking to support the development of a covid-19 vaccine (a) in the UK and (b) throughout the world. (902377)

What diplomatic steps the Government are taking to support the development of a covid-19 vaccine (a) in the UK and (b) throughout the world. (902380)

The UK is playing a leading role in supporting global research and development efforts to find a vaccine, with vaccine trials commenced in this country, and the UK leading internationally to find and distribute vaccines abroad.

The Prime Minister acknowledged that, although there is an international race to find a vaccine, it is not a competition, and a breakthrough could come anywhere around the world, although one of the first likely candidates is the Oxford project. If the project is successful, that vaccine will be manufactured by a consortium including Cobra Biologics in my constituency of Newcastle-under-Lyme, but I know that it is keen to produce enough not just for the UK, but to send around the world, especially to the many countries with no manufacturing capacity of their own. Could my right hon. Friend reassure me that we are coming to reciprocal understandings with other nations around the world to ensure that any vaccine, wherever it is produced, both reaches the UK swiftly and is made available on an international basis as soon as possible?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We want to spearhead the pursuit of a vaccine through the research that has been conducted in this country—and, if possible, manufacture it at the kind of scale that would deal not just with UK needs, but with those more broadly. Through the contributions that we are making to the Coronavirus Global Response Initiative, to CEPI and to the Gavi funding calls, we are the leading donor in the latest call for donations to ensure not only that we can provide vaccines for UK nationals here at home, but that those vaccines can be expanded, particularly to the most vulnerable countries abroad.

May I thank my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary for his personal intervention, after a text to the Moroccan authorities at 11 o’clock at night led one of my constituents to return home to Morecambe? Does he agree that keeping commercial routes into the UK open is critical to ensuring that British nationals can continue to return home? These routes have been a vital connection for many of my constituents who were stuck abroad.

I thank my hon. Friend for his tenacity and for raising the case of his constituents so swiftly. I am delighted and relieved that they have been able to get home. On his broader point, he is absolutely right. Yes, the charter flights are important—we have got more than 30,000 British nationals back on those flights—but we have had to work very hard to keep the airports and particularly the transit hubs open. As a result, we have managed to secure the return, safe and sound, of more than 1.3 million UK nationals on vital commercial flights.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Thanks in part to our leadership and our work with international partners on the Gavi programmes, we are in a leading position to collaborate on developing and manufacturing vaccines. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to take the same collaborative approach to developing and, crucially, manufacturing a vaccine to tackle covid-19?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are proud to be pioneering trials in this country to crack the issue of finding a vaccine. Of course, we need to leverage the manufacturing base we have here and our incredible pharmaceutical sector. We are proud that we co-hosted the coronavirus global response initiative on 4 May, and we will host the global vaccine summit on 4 June. On CEPI and Gavi, as I said, we are the largest donor to the recent calls for funding, and we will continue that international collaboration, which is so vital.

The UK’s participation in the international pledging conference was extremely welcome, but it is deeply concerning that the USA was notable by its absence. Without US participation, the search for a vaccine will undeniably be slower and more lives will be lost, so can the Foreign Secretary reassure us that he or the Prime Minister asked the United States to attend? What was its reason for turning us down? What realistically does he think the UK can do to turn this situation around before not just the Gavi summit that he mentioned but the crunch G7 leaders summit in June?

The shadow Foreign Secretary raises an excellent point. This is a moment when we need to try to reduce political tensions and work collaboratively right across the world. On returns, I work with my Cuban opposite number, my Chinese opposite number and Foreign Ministers from around the world, and when it comes to finding the vaccine there is an even stronger impetus. We will keep making the case in the G7 and bilaterally, with the Americans and all the major countries, to try to get really strong international leadership, and of course we will continue to try to ensure that the coalition is as broad and deep as possible.

We are unable to connect Tom Tugendhat, so I call Minister James Duddridge to answer the substantive question tabled by Ruth Jones.

Zimbabwe

The humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe is bad. I had been an optimist on Zimbabwe post Mugabe, but things are bleak across the political, economic, social and humanitarian fronts. Her Majesty’s Government stand ready to support, but only when we see genuine reform. Until then, we support the people of Zimbabwe with a £140 million development package, but, crucially, none of that money goes directly through the Government of Zimbabwe.

I thank the Minister for that update. There are currently 7 million people in urban and rural areas of Zimbabwe in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, compared with only 5.5 million in August last year. What conversations has he had with the Zimbabwean Government to discuss their humanitarian needs?

On Thursday I spoke to the Department for International Development head in Zimbabwe and our ambassador about the situation. They were very clear, as I am, that we need domestic reform in Zimbabwe as well as external international development.

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps

What recent assessment he has made of the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran’s regional activity. (902370)

We are concerned about Iran’s destabilising regional activity. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps provides military and financial support for groups that include the Houthis and Hezbollah. Support for those groups is in contravention of UN Security Council resolutions and undermines prospects for regional stability. We have called on Iran to play a constructive role in the region, and Ministers and senior officials routinely raise concerns with Iranian counterparts and regional partners.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is the nexus of Iran’s destabilising activities, distributing funds and weapons in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. The revolutionary guard is already subject to UK sanctions, but does the Minister agree that full proscription should now be applied? Does he share my concerns that the expiration of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action arms embargo in October stands to enable the revolutionary guard to expand its murderous regional actions?

We have long expressed our deeply held concerns about the destabilising activity of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. I take into consideration the points my hon. Friend makes about its activity, but the UK Government do not routinely comment on organisations that they may proscribe. The proscription list is regularly reviewed and we will always take situations on the ground into consideration when we update it.

Covid-19: Israeli and Palestinian Authority Co-operation

What recent reports he has received on Israeli co-operation with the Palestinian Authority in tackling covid-19. (902371)

What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of Israeli-Palestinian co-operation in tackling covid-19. (902373)

We welcome the ongoing co-operation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority towards tackling covid-19, a matter I was pleased to discuss directly with the Israeli ambassador to the UK and the Palestinian Prime Minister recently. UN agencies, the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority are working together to ensure essential medical supplies and staff reach the most vulnerable areas, including Gaza. We encourage continued positive interaction between Israel and the Palestinian authorities in their efforts to fight covid-19.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the UN special co-ordinator for the middle east peace process recently praised the way the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority have been working together to tackle covid-19. Does he agree that that kind of practical co-operation—the building of trust and meeting shared challenges head on—is the way that peace will get built in the region? Will he step up his efforts to encourage genuine negotiations based on the two-state solution?

In conversations I have had with representatives of both the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority I have praised the way they have worked together on this matter. I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend that international co-operation is the way that we, as the international community, will fight it. As the Prime Minister said at the coronavirus global response international pledging conference he co-hosted in May, the race for a vaccine is not a competition between countries, but the most urgent shared endeavour of our lifetime. If the attitudes we bring into fighting this disease can be more broadly applied, I think the world will be a better place.

I thank the Minister for his comments. Will he join me in welcoming the news that Israel has approved a $230 million advance payment to the Palestinian Authority, alongside coronavirus test kits, intensive care beds, ventilators, drugs and protective equipment? Is that not exactly the kind of behaviour we should welcome and encourage?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the points he makes. We have indeed commented positively to the Israeli Government on how they have worked with the Palestinian Authority. I made the same point to Palestinian Authority representatives on the way they have worked with the Israeli Government. It shows a pattern of co-operation that should be replicated. I hope it is a step towards building trust that will enable a sustainable peaceful solution to the situation in Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

We are going to have to speed up the answers, Minister, please. We now go across to welcome Wayne David to his new position.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. As has been said, there is encouraging co-operation between Israelis and Palestinians with regard to covid-19. I am sure the Minister agrees that that highlights how wrong it is for a new Israeli Government to pursue a policy of illegal annexation of large parts of the west bank. What are the Government doing to mobilise international opinion against that annexation?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place, although it is virtual. The UK Government have expressed, both publicly and to the Government of Israel, our concerns about reports of annexation, which we have consistently said we oppose and could be detrimental to the chances of the peaceful, sustainable two-state solution that we should all be working towards.

Occupied Palestinian Territories

What recent representations he has made to the Government of Israel on the proposed annexation of parts of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. (902378)

What recent discussions he has had with the Government of Israel on the proposed annexation of parts of the West Bank. (902381)

The UK is deeply concerned about the reports that the new Israeli coalition Government have reached an agreement that may pave the way for annexation of parts of the west bank. Any unilateral move towards the annexation of parts of the west bank by Israel would be damaging to efforts to restart the peace process and contradictory to international law, and might make the chances of a sustainable two-state solution harder. We recently made clear our concerns at the UN Security Council remote meeting on the middle east peace process on 23 April.

I appreciate the Minister’s concern, but does he believe that the proposed annexation by Israel of the Palestinian territories would be illegal under international law? If so, does he think that the United Kingdom Government’s response should be the same as it would be with other countries guilty of illegal annexation, such as Russia?

Our long-standing position is that such a move would be contrary to international law. We continue to have a constructive relationship with both the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and we will continue to work towards a peaceful resolution that takes us to a sustainable two-state solution. That is our long-standing position, and we continue to work towards it.

I am pleased to hear the Minister condemn any proposed annexation of territories in the west bank by the Israeli Government. Will he go further and accept that such an annexation would render any future Palestinian state unviable, would destroy its geographical integrity, and as such would render a two-state solution obsolete? Is it not absolutely essential that the Government act now with others to stop the Israelis annexing territory in the way that they currently intend?

As I said, our long-standing position is that we do not support the annexation of parts of the west bank, as doing so could make a sustainable two-state solution harder. We support actions by the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority that take us closer to a sustainable two-state solution, and we express our concerns about anything that might put that at risk.

Sino-British Joint Declaration

What assessment he has made of the effect on the Sino-British joint declaration of recent actions by the Chinese Government in Hong Kong. (902374)

There have been a number of concerning recent developments in Hong Kong. As co-signatory of the joint declaration, the UK expects the mainland Chinese authorities to respect Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and the rights and freedoms provided in that legally binding treaty. We are monitoring the situation very closely and will provide a full assessment of implementation of the joint declaration in six-monthly reports to Parliament.

Beijing’s top political office in Hong Kong recently referred to pro-democracy protesters as a “political virus” and declared itself as being entitled to interfere in Hong Kong as it sees fit—clear breaches of the joint declaration. What plan do the Government have to help British national (overseas) passport holders in Hong Kong, should the deterioration of relations continue?

The Foreign Secretary commented in Parliament on 26 September that the status of British nationals overseas was

“part of the delicate balance”—[Official Report, 26 September 2019; Vol. 664, c. 865]

in the negotiations that led to the Sino-British joint declaration. We believe that it would undermine the commitments made under the memorandum exchanged in connection with the joint declaration to change the arrangements regarding the status of BNOs, but we monitor the situation constantly. I know the right hon. Gentleman takes a keen interest in the issue.