Skip to main content

Coronavirus: British Citizens Imprisoned Abroad

Volume 802: debated on Monday 2 March 2020


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the response given by my honourable friend the Minister for Asia and the Pacific to an Urgent Question in the other place. The Statement is as follows:

“Protecting British citizens at home and abroad is a top priority for this Government and amid the outbreak of Covid-19, known as coronavirus, the UK is leading the response. First, we are providing support to British citizens abroad. This includes, of course, travellers and their families in countries around the world. The FCO is closely monitoring coronavirus throughout the world through its diplomatic network. We are providing travel advice to British nationals so that they can be sure of the facts before deciding whether to travel and sure of what they should do if they are affected by an outbreak of Covid-19 when travelling.

The UK has also put in place measures to ensure that travellers returning from abroad do not spread the virus further. We have enhanced monitoring measures at UK airports. Health information is available at all international airports, ports and international train stations. We have established a supported isolation facility at Heathrow Airport to cater for international passengers who are tested, and to maximise infection control and free up NHS resources.

For British nationals caught up in the initial outbreaks of the virus, HMG have co-ordinated repatriation for those impacted in Wuhan and the passengers on board the “Diamond Princess” cruise ship, and we are working with the Spanish authorities and tour operators to support the return of British nationals affected by the situation in Tenerife.

We also continue to insist that British nationals who are being detained in countries such as Iran, which has seen reports of a high number of cases of coronavirus, are temporarily released. France, Germany and the United Kingdom have expressed their full solidarity with those who are impacted by Covid-19 in Iran, so we are offering Iran a comprehensive package of both material and financial support to stem the rapid spread of the disease. Today, a plane departed the UK with vital materials such as equipment for laboratory tests as well as other equipment, including protective body suits and gloves. The E3 has also committed to providing urgent additional financial support of close to €5 million to fight the Covid-19 epidemic affecting Iran through the WHO or other UN agencies.

We will continue to support global efforts to combat the outbreak of Covid-19. Our support is directed at helping the most vulnerable across the globe and strengthening the global health system to protect our own nationals. We have provided £40 million of investment into vaccine and virus research and £5 million for the World Health Organization. We will continue to do all we can to keep British nationals safe and healthy around the world.”

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the response to that Urgent Question. In the other place this afternoon, my right honourable friend Emily Thornberry recalled British aid efforts to help the people of Iran during a humanitarian crisis. She asked the Minister to join her in making a plea to the Iranian Government to see Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe as one of those innocent people in a humanitarian crisis whom they have it in their gift to save. She also hoped that the Minister would make a solemn commitment that if Iran acts with compassion, we would not forget our obligations to act with fairness and justice in resolving the other issues of dispute between our countries.

Unfortunately, it is not only Nazanin who is suffering in Iranian prisons today. There is Aras Amiri, who in 2018 was sentenced to 10 years, or Anoosheh Ashoori, sentenced to 12 years in 2019—and there are many others. Can the Minister offer an update on any of these cases? In particular, can she confirm whether concerns about Covid-19 have been raised by the families of other dual nationals imprisoned in Iran?

My Lords, we have been in close touch with the Iranian authorities to urge them to secure a temporary release on medical grounds for Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, while her release remains a top priority for the Government. Of course, the welfare of all British nationals imprisoned in Iran is a top priority and we will continue to lobby for the temporary release of all detainees in Evin Prison.

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness for that answer. I am glad that we are working with France and Germany in recognising the dire situation that Iran is in—it is clearly in the middle of a major epidemic—and that we are doing our best to help Iran and its people in any way we can. However, this crisis clearly shows why action needed to be taken a long time ago to get Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the other dual nationals released. Do the Government not have a special responsibility as far as she is concerned? Her health has clearly been compromised, while we hear that new prisoners are not being admitted to her prison because of the virus. There are apparently no medicines or disinfectants. Surely the Government have to do their very best to secure her release, get her into quarantine and bring her home to the United Kingdom.

My Lords, we are calling on the Iranian Government to immediately give detained British-Iranian dual nationals access to appropriate medical treatment and our colleagues in Tehran will continue to lobby for the temporary release of all our detainees in Evin Prison. Of course, it is important that we support Iran as best we can. We have seen an alarming increase in the number of cases there, with 523 confirmed in the previous 24 hours. That is why it is so important that the E3 supports Iran in the way that it is.

My Lords, I am sure everyone in the House has huge sympathy with the appalling predicament of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her, frankly, unreasonable imprisonment. On the broader issue of coronavirus—I look forward to listening to the Chief Medical Officer when he comes to us on Wednesday—while this is of course a very serious outbreak, it seems that there is a danger of overreacting. I am in the danger zone, as are most of your Lordships because all old men aged over 60 are in it. But, on average, some 17,000 people die of flu every winter, yet so far we have had no deaths at all from coronavirus in this country and the numbers around the world are slim. Can the Minister reassure me that we are not overreacting?

My Lords, I agree that it is absolutely right that we should get the balance of our reaction correct. Of course, public safety is our top priority and I thank all those already working around the clock so that we are ready at home and can ensure the safety of UK nationals abroad. Our approach in this country is being guided by the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, and independent experts. We will continue to work closely with the World Health Organization and the international community to ensure that we get our response to this outbreak right.

My Lords, is it true that the prisoners who are ill abroad are not being tested? Surely all of them should be tested and treated.

If the noble Baroness is referring directly to the prisoners in Iran, as I say, we are working closely with the Iranian authorities to ensure that we have access to them and that they get the testing and the medical attention they need.