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Covid-19: Repatriation of UK Nationals

Volume 803: debated on Thursday 30 April 2020


The Statement was made in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat a Statement on the repatriation of UK nationals affected by Covid-19 given in another place yesterday by my right honourable friend the Minister for Asia. The figures have changed since then, and this Statement contains more up-to-date figures. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, I would like to make a Statement on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Our team of experienced diplomats here at home and in our embassies and consulates around the world continue to work around the clock, using our unparalleled international connections to help overcome this unprecedented challenge.

Since the outbreak in Wuhan, our overriding priority has been to help British travellers get home safely to their loved ones. We estimate that since the outbreak began, more than 1.3 million people have returned to the UK via commercial routes from countries across the globe. We have seen more than 200,000 British nationals from Spain and 50,000 from Australia return in the past month alone.

Keeping commercial options running has required an enormous international effort. We have worked alongside airlines and foreign Governments to keep vital routes open and to ensure that domestic restrictions do not create a barrier to getting people home. As the House will appreciate, as countries have increased travel restrictions, often without notice, commercial routes have ceased to be an option for some travellers. Thanks to a £75 million partnership between the Government and airlines, we have now brought back more than 20,000 people on 99 charter flights organised by the Foreign Office from more than 21 countries and territories. In some instances, that means bringing home a few hundred passengers from small countries such as the Gambia and remote locations such as the outer islands of the Philippines. In other cases, it has meant returning thousands of British travellers, such as more than 10,000 people now returned home from India and more than 2,000 thus far from Pakistan. In the next week alone, we will bring back thousands more travellers on further charter flights, including from Bangladesh, Nigeria and New Zealand.

I would also like to touch on cruise ship travel. More than 19,000 British passengers were aboard 60 cruise ships when the FCO changed its travel advice on 17 March. Working with the local authorities, Governments and cruise operators, the FCO has helped to ensure that those passengers were able to return home. We have provided consular assistance to many of them and in some cases, we have organised direct or supported charter flights for more than 1,500 people.

For those people who have chosen to remain in place or are still trying to get home, our consular teams are providing support 24 hours a day. To ensure timely responses, we have tripled the capacity in our consular contact centres. Our broader consular effort has been centred around supporting British travellers right across the piece. We have worked with foreign Governments to ensure that British travellers can continue to meet visa, immigration or documentation requirements while they are abroad, and we are also offering financial protection, including through the same measures available to British workers and residents here at home, such as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and access to mortgage holidays.

We are ensuring that British travellers have access to essential care, including food, accommodation and medical care. That includes psychosocial support, and we have been working with third-sector and external partners to deliver that. Most UK insurers will now extend their travel insurance cover, so British travellers actively trying to get home will be covered for emergency medical treatment if they are still stuck abroad for at least 60 days. Our efforts and our aims show that we are committed to helping every British traveller, no matter where they are in the world.

Turning to the FCO’s role in procurement, specifically of personal protective equipment, with so many other countries in similar circumstances, we are grappling with a global PPE shortage. Yet, thanks to the efforts of our domestic manufacturers and our work with international partners around the world, we have procured and distributed more than 1 billion items to those on the front line. My noble friend Lord Deighton, who helped to organise the London Olympics, has been brought in to oversee efforts to boost our domestic supply even further.

In the Foreign Office we are working tirelessly through our overseas posts to get medical supplies into the UK. More than 350 million items of PPE have been procured through our China network alone, and we are working flat out to get orders delivered from, for example, Turkey and Egypt. We have also distributed more than 1,500 ventilators, with thousands more ordered and on the way. In the past week, we have received shipments of more than 4 million type IIR masks and 1 million other masks. By the end of yesterday, flights had touched down with more than 500,000 masks, more than 350,000 gowns and more than 750,000 face shields. Meanwhile, the Foreign Secretary and my fellow Ministers at the FCO are on calls with counterparts around the world every day, working to secure new deliveries from abroad, with the support of our excellent and tireless Diplomatic Service.

From the start of this crisis, the UK has played a leading role in tackling the spread of the disease and the world’s response to it. We are uniquely placed to do so as a member of the G7, the G20, NATO, the Commonwealth and the United Nations, and as a major donor to the global health system. As the Foreign Secretary laid out in his previous Statement, our international strategy is focused on four key areas: securing a strong and co-ordinated global health response, particularly for the most vulnerable countries; accelerating the search for a vaccine, more effective treatments and testing; supporting the global economy, keeping trade open and securing critical supply chains; and keeping transit hubs and transport routes open to support the flow of freight and medical supplies and, crucially, to bring our people home.

I have outlined our support for bringing British nationals home and wish to touch on our good progress in other areas. We are helping vulnerable countries with their response to coronavirus by announcing up to £744 million in aid, including for research and development, and support for the World Health Organization, UN agencies, non-governmental organisations and the Red Cross. Yesterday, my right honourable friend the International Development Secretary announced a funding pledge equivalent to £330 million a year over the next five years to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. That will fund the immunisation of 75 million children against other deadly diseases, supporting the world’s poorest countries so that they can cope with rising numbers of coronavirus cases.

For a Covid-19 vaccine, the Government have already committed £360 million as part of our domestic and international effort. That investment includes a quarter of a billion pounds to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations to support co-ordinated global research. That is the single largest contribution by any country. We are also helping to keep vital trade routes and supply chains open by co-ordinating closely with allies and partners in the commercial sector.

Finally, the UK has a responsibility to protect the safety and security of the people of the overseas territories, most of whom are British nationals. We have been providing tailored support to our overseas territories, ensuring that the appropriate resources are provided to them during the coronavirus response. The scale and impact of this pandemic have been unimaginable but, working alongside our international partners, the UK has been able to demonstrate the kind of leadership, co-operation and collaboration that will get us through this crisis. I commend this Statement to the House.”

I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement. First, I thank him and all the FCO staff for their tireless efforts to support those stranded. I know from the cases I have referred and raised how committed they have been to help, and it has been much appreciated. However, it is difficult to fully grasp the scale of the repatriation still required. Even if we consider only those who have reached out to their MPs, the issue is clearly an enormous one.

There used to be a system for recording data on UK citizens abroad, but it was scrapped. Last month, in questions to James Duddridge, my honourable friend Stephen Doughty asked that, at the very least, medical or vulnerable cases should be recorded immediately, so that they could be prioritised at a later stage when repatriation started. Sadly, that did not happen. Can the noble Lord confirm that the FCO is now fully recording numbers, and will he publish these at regular intervals, so that we can better understand progress? In the absence of data at present, is he able to estimate how many UK nationals are currently stranded abroad, or is the 57,500 estimate from Monday still applicable?

The chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee reported yesterday that it has been conducting a survey asking people about their experiences of being repatriated to the UK. The main issue it found is the difficulty some people encountered with communications when they were abroad, or the inability to receive communications, with one problem area being the High Commission in India. What is the FCO doing to address this issue, both in the short and the long term?

The announcement that 19,000 people have been brought back on 93 charter flights is welcome, but Germany, for example, had repatriated 60,000 citizens on 240 charter flights by early April. I appreciate that the noble Lord will be keen to stress that more than a million have returned to the UK on commercial routes, but when we consider IATA’s estimate that air traffic is currently down by 90% over Europe, it is clear that we can no longer rely on commercial flights. Will the Minister therefore commit his Government to urgently scale-up the number of chartered flights available? In response to reports of UK nationals being priced out by the cost of flights home, can he offer an update on the recent steps taken to remove that financial barrier?

Many UK nationals have been unable to travel to the airports which are still operating, due to either ill health or problems with internal travel, and so require consular support to help them in this journey. The Foreign Office must be equipped and prepared to support any UK national abroad in any aspect of their return home. I welcome what the Minister said about that support, but we need to address the issue of isolated people.

When UK nationals arrive home, it cannot be considered “job done”. If the Government are to contain the virus, there must be rigorous testing, tracing and isolation. It is therefore regrettable that the Government have yet to confirm any intentions to test or quarantine arrivals to the UK, despite press reports suggesting that such plans are in the pipeline. Can the Minister therefore confirm whether UK nationals, and others, will be asked to quarantine on arrival in the UK and, if so, for how long? Can he also confirm whether the Government will introduce testing of those arriving in the UK?

Finally, I very much welcome the pledge of support to Gavi. I hope that the Minister will be able to advise noble Lords what that pledge means for encouraging others; we do need more. I also welcome the commitment to, and investment in, CEPI. On Tuesday, I met its chief executive in a seminar, and I welcome its efforts to establish a vaccine. However, time is short, and action is necessary now.

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement. I welcome the financial contributions to Gavi, the WHO and others, whose efforts are clearly vital in this crisis. As we know, their work saves lives. I also welcome the contribution to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, something which no Government after this must neglect. I pay tribute to the huge amount of work undertaken by the FCO, DfID and our embassies and high commissions during this crisis. However, we seem to be behind other countries in getting people home.

On 27 March, the EU had brought home half a million citizens. The United Kingdom chartered six flights for 1,000 British citizens through the EU crisis scheme; Germany chartered over 100 flights for over 20,000 German citizens. On 1 April, the Independent reported that Air France had flown more than 200 rescue missions but that

“the UK has yet to reach double figures in government-sponsored repatriation flights.”

By mid-April, only 5,000 out of 20,000 UK citizens in India had been brought back. Why did we lag so far behind our EU colleagues? The Government emphasised —and still do—that they were working with other countries, yet we seemed particularly unwilling to work with our EU colleagues. Why was that? Looking at where we are now, can the Minister answer the question from the noble Lord, Lord Collins: how many more people need to be brought home?

The Minister mentioned Nigeria in the Statement. I am sure he will know that there has been a surge of deaths in Kano state, an indication that coronavirus may be more widespread there than the Nigerian authorities are admitting. Are we making quarantine plans for those who come back from Nigeria?

The Minister mentioned that we have tripled our capacity in consular centres. That is obviously welcome, but we have brought home many diplomats and their families from countries with weak health systems. Are we working jointly with the EU to maximise our capacity? There have been many complaints about inadequate capacity and communication.

The Minister mentioned PPE. Again, we all knew from reports on Twitter, if nowhere else, that the United Kingdom had been invited to join the original EU scheme. No one can say that we did not know about it. So why did we not? The Minister will know that the Government’s latest Statement on this is not persuasive.

However, I am very glad to hear that we intend to act globally. Some countries appear to be using the cover of this crisis. Some are taking authoritarian measures. In Hong Kong, human rights campaigners such as the esteemed lawyer Martin Lee have been arrested. What will we do to challenge these actions? Israel has just formed a coalition Government who may now plan to annex the Occupied Territories. Can the Minister assure us that we will make it plain that this is contrary to international law and will be resisted? I look forward to the Minister’s response.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, for their questions. I start by thanking them for their kind remarks acknowledging the work that has been done. As a Minister responsible for a particular part of the world—south Asia—that has seen thousands and thousands of British travellers being impacted, I am acutely aware of the challenge that has been posed by the repatriation efforts. Again, I commend the efforts of our diplomats on the ground, and the consular efforts being made through countless numbers of emails and telephone calls. Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness mentioned the ramping up of consular support. We have certainly seen this in the inquiries made by parliamentary colleagues on behalf of their constituents and in response to direct cases. The current level is circa 3,000 calls—to put that in context, around 45% of those calls cover south Asia. A substantial number of calls are coming in for that part of the world.

I acknowledge the support of both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord on the issue of vaccines. This remains a key priority. We are all watching closely the recent developments in Oxford and we wish well everyone around the world who is seeking a solution. I am proud that, notwithstanding the domestic challenges posed by the Covid-19 crisis, the support that we are giving to Gavi and CEPI underlines the United Kingdom’s commitment to standing up with partners in the global fight against coronavirus, as well as against other viruses.

I took part in a multilateral conference organised by our German and French colleagues—the Foreign Ministers of both countries—which, again, underlines the level of co-operation. Picking up on a point made by the noble Baroness about working with our EU partners, the UK will be hosting a joint conference with the EU on our response to Covid-19. Whether on repatriation or our general response internationally, I assure the noble Baroness and the noble Lord that we will continue to work with our EU partners as well as other international partners on this global crisis.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised the various communication challenges with various posts. He mentioned India specifically. I put on record my thanks to our acting high commissioner, who has taken to her task in an admirable fashion. I know the volume of British nationals that she has been challenged with repatriating. It is notable that with 52 charter flights from India we will have returned more than 10,000 British travellers to the United Kingdom. That is no small feat. It is down to our consular efforts in India and to the support that was subsequently given. The noble Baroness and the noble Lord mentioned that we started our charter flights later than other partners. As a former Aviation Minister of two years standing, I know all too well the challenges posed by securing charter permissions. I stand by our actions, as does the Foreign Secretary, when we sought to keep using commercial routes where they were viable. A good and notable example of that was Pakistan, from where we were able to return more than 7,500 people on commercial flights because the national carrier PIA continued to operate.

On pricing, which the noble Lord raised, as it relates to some commercial carriers, we have addressed this directly with the airlines. For example, PIA has restarted its flights and its current charging is reflective of the charter flights that we are deploying from Pakistan. We will continue to employ these flights. We have extended flights to other countries, including Bangladesh. Through charter flights, we have returned 800 people from Nepal and, on commercial flights, 600 people from the Maldives. That gives an example of how a combination of commercial operations and charter flights has resulted in the substantial success thus far of the policy.

However, I am not complacent. Both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord raised the issue of British travellers who are still abroad. There are a large number, running into the thousands, in India alone, as well as in Pakistan. It is a patch I know well. I assure noble Lords that we are working around the clock to ensure that flights are laid on. Some people are undoubtedly making decisions to stay in-country. They are looking at the domestic profile of the coronavirus spread in the UK compared with in the country they may be visiting, or where they may be staying with friends or family. We are stressing to anyone who has booked a charter flight that, once they have booked it, they should get on that flight; otherwise, they will be denying an opportunity to someone else to return.

The noble Lord also raised the issue of the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee and issues of repatriation, communications and commercial routes, which I have already addressed.

The noble Baroness asked about partnership and working on the issue of PPE with all partners. I have referenced a couple of countries, including in my patch of south Asia, that we are sourcing PPE from. The Foreign Secretary has made this a priority. We are part of the EU scheme. I think that the misunderstandings that arose have been addressed directly by the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office in his response to the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

I also assure both noble Lords that we are dealing tomorrow with issues surrounding the development response. I will seek to update them regularly to ensure that all noble Lords, particularly those serving on our Front Benches, are fully versed in the numbers and challenges that we face. I have been a Foreign Office Minister for close to three years now, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, keeps reminding me, but I have never faced a challenge like this. There have been crises, but this is unprecedented. When we say that, it is probably an understatement. But I assure noble Lords that we are leaving no stone unturned and we are undoubtedly learning lessons from the challenges that are being posed.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked what more could be done, and we are learning lessons, such as on the vulnerability of individuals who are visiting countries. That is why, with the Foreign Secretary’s approval and at my direction, countries, certainly in the areas that I looked after, opened up registers before the charter flights started to ensure that we could identify the most vulnerable and those with underlying medical conditions so that they could be returned as soon as possible on the earlier charter flights. The charter flights continue, and we will continue to update the House regularly on this important issue, which I know is of concern to all noble Lords.

My Lords, I welcome my noble friend the Minister’s reference to the UK’s responsibility to protect the safety of the people in our overseas territories, but could he give an example of the UK’s tailored support for the OTs and what he actually means by appropriate resources—is that money, equipment, technical advice? What is it?

My noble friend speaks from experience as a former Minister for the Overseas Territories—a job that I enjoyed; it was sometimes challenging but in the main enjoyable. First and foremost, I assure her that the overseas territories, which are British territories, have been discussed at the highest level of government—at the international inter-ministerial group, which continues to be chaired by the Foreign Secretary, so it is being discussed at the highest level. In terms of specific responses, we have deployed Crown agents to look at the equipment that is needed in response to the coronavirus. All the inhabited territories—with, I think, the exception of Tristan da Cunha and the Pitcairn Islands—have been given direct support with equipment, and, through Public Health England, we are speaking to the Chief Medical Officer in each of those countries. In relation to my noble friend’s second point, we are giving technical support to ensure that needs are met. From her time in office, she will be acutely aware of the security challenges. For example, we have already supported the security efforts in the Turks and Caicos Islands, and we talk regularly to all representatives of the overseas territories. I am certainly working very closely with our noble friend Lady Sugg, who is doing an admirable job in this area.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s reference to the arrangements with PIA. However, I tried to help a friend to get her elderly parents back home from Pakistan. She experienced continual cancellation of flights, woeful communications and rising ticket prices. Therefore, will the Minister consider a specific review of the repatriation process from the Indian subcontinent? Also, I know that the booking portal for charter flights from India is currently closed and that people are on a waiting list. Will more charter flights from the Indian subcontinent be provided if people still need to be repatriated?

In answer to the noble Baroness’s second question, the short answer is yes. This is demand led. For example, initially we had flights from Delhi, Mumbai and Goa. We commenced the programme in those cities for logistical reasons—to ensure that permissions were received for charter flights. A large proportion of British travellers are still seeking to return from Ahmedabad in Gujarat, India, and from Amritsar in the Punjab, and we will continue to operate flights. The portals were closed to ensure that we could clear the wait-list, which is still operational. I assure the noble Baroness that an email link to the high commission is now being offered to those who still wish to register but who did not meet the original deadline date for registering themselves on the database for returns. We have made a commitment to return those who wish to come back to the UK, and we will continue to meet that demand in India.

The noble Baroness, rightly, referenced Pakistan and Pakistan International Airlines. We have talked regularly to the chairman of PIA. She will know that I was directly involved in the case that she referred to. I have also been involved in discussions with the Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi authorities and at a local level— I have been ringing Chief Ministers to ensure that we get local permissions. Perhaps I may just put this in context. For every passenger who is returned from India, for example, the level of detail that we have to go into, because of the curfews that have been imposed, is such that we have to provide every local authority with details of every vehicle that is used to ensure that we can get British travellers to the airport on time to catch their flight. Our diplomats are not expert travel agents, but I can tell noble Lords that they have learned a great deal from the repatriation efforts. I am sure that all noble Lords will join me in commending them for their excellence—notwithstanding the challenges, which we are seeking to address—in what they have done and continue to deliver.

I join in the appreciation of the efforts of our diplomats and other civil servants in the Government’s service. However, for the life of me, I cannot understand the Government’s reticence in acknowledging that they derived financial support from the Brussels scheme for repatriation. It makes one wonder whether there is some edict that nothing good should be said about the European Union. Since, as has already been pointed out, the first responsibility of any Government is to ensure the safety and protection of their citizens, why not redeploy some of the civil servants who are currently engaged in the increasingly fruitless pursuit of a deal with the European Union by 31 December to make sure that we bring all our citizens home as soon as possible?

On the noble Lord’s more substantial point, we are of course redeploying diplomats in all our posts, whether they work on the security side or from a Home Office or military perspective, wherever they are needed, and they are key to the repatriation effort in each country—I know that south Asia has been a key area of focus—and that has been the right thing to do. The noble Lord says that nothing positive is said about Europe. I ask him to reflect on the comments I made a few moments ago on how we will be co-hosting a conference with our European Union partners on the important issue of the global response to Covid. That underlines the commitment of the UK to work with international partners in different multilateral fora—and, yes, including with our European Union friends.

My Lords, I am not yet clear as to what the numbers are. Clearly, two sorts of people are being repatriated: one is the people who were on cruise ships and on holidays who were just stranded; the second group is people who went often to south Asia because that is what they did on a regular basis, but they were not on holiday and they did not have a definite time of return. Is there any estimate of the numbers in those two categories, and what are the plans for getting them back? I think in particular of the holidaymakers, because they are no longer on holiday if they have been there for a month, and I guess that the cruise ship industry will have problems. Secondly, there are lots of planes sitting on the ground at Heathrow and in all sorts of airports. How do you choose who gets to fly the planes back, and why, when there are so many empty planes, is there such a long queue?

To take my noble friend’s final remarks first, a lot of countries have closed airspace, and you need to seek special permissions to allow aircraft to fly. Our charter flights have been operating; as my noble friend will recall, we announced a £75 million package, and we are working in partnership with airlines with which we have signed memorandums of understanding. Every time there is a charter route, we go out and get the best offer from an airline. For example, in India we have been working with British Airways, and in Pakistan we have been working with Qatar Airways.

On the specific numbers on cruise ships, I have already alluded to the fact that we have returned a substantial number—around 19,000 people. At one time we were monitoring a great number of cruise ships—I remember sitting in meetings, day after day, tracking cruise ships around the world. We have had a successful repatriation policy in support of those people, returning them either through commercial routes or, when necessary, running chartered flights.

On the specifics of holidaymakers versus people visiting family, the original estimates ran to around 20,000 people in India, for example, so the fact that we have already returned over 10,000 people is testament to the number of flights. However, the scale of the operation could not be underestimated. To take just the Indian example, we have now run 52 charter flights. It was necessary to run them, and, as I said in response to an earlier question, we continue to run additional flights because of the sheer scale of numbers, with people visiting family and in different parts of the world. Yes, we have committed to do this work and continue to do it. As I said, the job is not done, nor have I claimed that, but we are working through the numbers to ensure that those who wish to come back to the UK can be brought home as quickly as possible. We have prioritised the most vulnerable, which was the right thing to do, but we continue to work with countries on the ground to ensure that we can repatriate all British travellers who wish to return home.

I also appreciate the hard work that our people at the embassies in different parts of the world and the FCO have been doing to bring people back to Britain at this difficult time. The Minister stated that 2,000 British nationals have been repatriated from Pakistan so far, but does he know how many more are still stranded in Pakistan and how long it will take to bring them all back home? Can he also tell us what testing mechanism for Covid-19 is in place for those returners at British airports?

The noble Lord raises a specific issue about Pakistan. First, the figure of 2,000 that I quoted relates specifically to the charter flights. We have been running charter flights from Islamabad and Lahore, because that was where the main demand was. However, I can assure him that, as I speak, there is a flight returning from Karachi as well, in response to demand.

In addition, because we were committed to working with the national carrier, PIA, which continued to operate commercially, we returned over 7,500 people through that channel. The noble Lord will be aware that PIA has recently restarted its flights as well. The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, underlined in her remarks that we are not relying on the national carrier alone and are continuing to run charter flights. That will continue.

On the support we are providing, all British travellers coming back to the UK on charter flights are being provided with information as they board the plane about the necessary steps they need to take and the issues that may confront them when they arrive. If any of them show symptoms while on the flight, the flight is held, as has happened in a number of cases, and those people are provided with support as they land in the UK. They are also being advised very clearly.

We continue to advise people to stay at home to protect themselves and others. Each traveller who returns is given that valuable advice.

I thank the Minister for the openness with which he has answered the questions so far. I would like to ask about British people stranded abroad who have medical needs—primarily those whose needs are not Covid-related. Are our embassies and consulates providing active assistance to those who, wherever they are, might need to source drugs for long-term conditions, for example?

Secondly, on the issue of commercial versus charter flights, the Government clearly made a choice early on to ask individual passengers to contact airline companies and fly home on commercial flights when possible. There was obviously also a lack of co-ordination between the Government and the flight operators and airlines. We have all heard lots of stories of people who found themselves facing vast costs, cancelled flights or companies refusing to reimburse payments. Was it not a mistake to opt so clearly for commercial over chartered flights when this co-ordination was lacking? Are the Government providing any assistance to people who are now back home and have financial implications from having to take flights at raised prices, so that they can pursue these cases?

First, taking the noble Lord’s question on medical needs, we have asked all our missions to prioritise this. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, I talked about vulnerable individuals. We have been collecting data on people returning home. When people have been waiting because the numbers have been high, particularly in places such as south Asia, they have been provided with support on places where they may be able to get prescription medicine.

We are also providing loan facilities for the most hard-up people. The noble Lord rightly pointed out that many have paid thousands of pounds for flights or were unable to finance the cost of their return flight. There is an interest-free loan facility available to Brits around the world. They need to approach the high commission or embassy which can process it. It gives them an interest-free loan and six months to pay upon their return. That is now operational.

We are looking to extend this support. We have a range of facilities, both pastoral and financial, that we are offering to people who remain in-country while they wait to return to the UK, to address specific needs. I once again emphasise that we have been prioritising the most vulnerable, to ensure they can return as soon as possible.

On the issue of flights and co-ordination, I have already made it clear that I think it was the right decision to stand by commercial operators, particularly when you look at the sheer numbers. To again use the Pakistan example, we returned 7,500 people. I fully accept the criticism that a couple of flights were cancelled and some were delayed, but I assure noble Lords that we were working very closely with the airlines and with Governments to ensure that flights remained operational. While there were challenges for people returning home, the fact that we were able to return over 7,500 people through that route demonstrates that it was the right decision. We stand by that. Pakistan is just one example; Australia is another.

We have operated charter flights when needed, as we did in India and Nepal. We are continuing to run an operation in India that we hope will return all the British nationals seeking to return. I add this, and I cannot emphasise it enough. A lot of noble Lords have been dealing directly with people coming to them individually. This message needs to get out there: if you are booked on a flight, get on the flight, because there are individuals who choose not to turn up at the airport. Unlike commercial operators, we cannot operate massive waiting lists. For those people who can come to the airport in quite a short time, we address that practical problem by facilitating and, in places such as India, ensuring their passage by picking them up directly so that they can get back as soon as possible.

There are issues with people now approaching us about airlines that have not refunded and are offering Air Miles, et cetera. Airlines need to look very hard at the people they serve. I share the noble Lord’s concern. People want compensation for the routes they did not use. Airlines need to step up to ensure that they can deliver on that. However, as we all know from the recent announcement from British Airways, airlines themselves are now extremely challenged because of the economic impact of Covid-19.

Many British citizens have postings or short-term contracts abroad. Is there any possibility that British citizens returning this year to this country will be automatically quarantined? If so, will that include self-quarantining with families at family homes, rather than in hotels by airports?

The noble Lord raises an important point about people who have returned from certain parts of the world. As we saw in the example of cruise ships, large numbers of British travellers who returned were held in facilities to ensure that the appropriate period of quarantine and isolation could be met. I assure him that we act accordingly, based on the scientific and medical advice that we get. We are looking at the situation. I add that there are many countries in the world where the situation has not been as challenging as we have found domestically in the UK. People are making choices to remain in countries. To come back to his earlier point about people still having contracts, be they in the short, medium or long term, we will have to look at that need when it arises. This is a fluid situation. I cannot predict the length of time this pandemic will continue. Certainly until a vaccine is found we all have to be on our guard, and be wary and cognisant of the very changeable and dynamic situation that we all face, not just domestically but globally.

My question relates to the health checks being made on passengers before they board flights back to the UK. I understand that no one displaying Covid symptoms will be allowed to board. Can my noble friend the Minister give more detail on how this is determined? How thorough are these checks?

As my noble friend will know, I am no medical doctor, but if anyone openly displays the symptoms that we are all familiar with they will not be allowed to fly. Those checks are being made prior to embarkation at different airports. Those methods continue. Anyone openly displaying any symptoms of the virus will not be allowed to board a plane. They will be in a confined space, so it would not be entirely appropriate. Individuals have displayed symptoms on the flight or once they return. As I said, we seek to ensure that they are provided medical support on arrival. We also provide them with information about the steps that they should take to protect themselves, their families and their communities.

We continue to work with airlines and international Governments to ensure that those who are returning take all the necessary steps and precautions to self-isolate if, when and as required, as everyone has been instructed here in the UK. Prior to boarding, they are checked to see whether they openly display symptoms. That said, as we have found, sometimes the virus stays with someone; they might just be a carrier, so there is no immediate sign, and sometimes the virus can take a few days to embed itself in an individual before they show symptoms. As best we can, if anyone is openly displaying the symptoms of the virus, they will not be allowed to travel.

I very much welcome what the Minister said about the multilateral approach, with not only the continuation but the expansion of British support for the most vulnerable in the world. I also welcome the announcement about co-hosting the conference. Have the Government had direct contact with the envoys of the African Union to the G20? What is the UK’s response to the African Union’s support?

I declare an interest: at the end of March, I was in a country that had declared a state of emergency and closed its borders and airspace. I have a great degree of empathy with not only the FCO and DfID support staff working around the world but the stress of people trying to find their way home. The Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office gave measured evidence to the committee and recognised that many people felt let down. The ramping up of that support is welcome.

I endorse the question asked by my noble friend Lady Northover. In addition to those who have come back on commercial routes, the German Government have repatriated more than 250,000 people. Now, fewer than 1,000 German citizens are stranded. How many British citizens want to come home but are apparently struggling to do so?

First, I thank the noble Lord for his remarks about support and the terrific effort of all our staff on the ground. I believe that he visited Sudan. I am well aware of the challenges he faced in leaving. That is testament to and reflects the effort that our posts are making.

The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, referred to the downscaling of posts. On that point, I assure noble Lords that, with the exception of four very small ones, all our posts continue to operate in any decision taken to return employees. That is done under strict guidelines, working with the PUS, to ensure that we put their concerns first—particularly those about their families and their own health vulnerabilities. I am sure that the noble Lord will not challenge that.

On working with African countries specifically, the short answer is that, yes, we were mindful of the challenges faced by many parts of the developing world in Africa and Asia. That is why we were pleased with the outcome of the G20 in terms of the decisions taken on debt repayments. For the medium term, they will prove beneficial to many parts of Africa and Asia.

On numbers, I have already alluded to the fact that we have returned a sizeable number of people. Looking at my own patch, I talked of 10,000 people in India. In the Statement, we talked about large-scale returns from Spain. That was reflective of keeping commercial routes in operation. It is not right suddenly to draw comparisons. Ministers from many countries have spoken privately to me and commended the UK’s efforts because this issue is posing challenges for them. We should not get into a competition over who has done what and where. The important thing is that we prioritise according to our needs. I would argue, with justification, that we faced a challenge in repatriating UK travellers from around the world: we estimate that there was a million of them. We continue to work on that number.

On estimating how many people remain abroad, as I said, the number runs into thousands. That is why we continue to operate chartered flights and, in parallel, keep commercial flights open. I believe that is the right approach, notwithstanding the challenges; I totally relate to the point that many people have faced immense challenges and unimaginable difficulties on the ground. I know what my family and friends, particularly those in south Asia, have had to face so I am totally at one with the noble Lord on that point, but the right way forward is ensuring that we get commercial flights operating as soon as possible. In the interim, we will continue to deploy chartered flights where we need to.

I first thank all the FCO and DfID staff, based here in the UK and abroad, for the great work they are doing to get British citizens back home. I also thank the Minister himself for the work he is doing to secure the safe return of British citizens. Many people have reason to be grateful to him for his work. I raised a case with the Minister a couple of weeks ago, and my noble kinsman Lady Kennedy and I are really appreciative of the work he did to get a couple of people we know back home to the UK, so I thank him very much for that. Where repatriation has proved to be more challenging, what work has been done to try to protect British citizens, who are in many cases desperate to come home, from falling victim to fraudsters and criminals who prey on people who are feeling vulnerable and worried, and just want to come home?

I thank the noble Lord and I am pleased that his friends were able to return. I appreciate the challenge faced by the most vulnerable in particular, and as he says, there are still many vulnerable people seeking to return. He raises, rightly, the challenge faced in some parts of the world. We have focused some of our work on the most vulnerable—vulnerable in terms of not just their health but the situations in which they find themselves within country. In certain parts of the world, that vulnerability is quite acute. The first and foremost message is: if they are concerned, they should immediately get in touch with our diplomats on the ground through the consulates, high commissions and embassies; they will seek to provide whatever support is needed. Whether it is immediate emotional support, pastoral support or financial support, our missions are very much ready to provide those people with whatever help they need. If they are concerned about their own security, again, where possible they should contact local law enforcement. However, please do get in touch with our embassies and consulates.

My Lords, that brings us to the end of the questions on the Statement and I thank all who have contributed. The system that we will use next week is different. This is the last broadcast with this system and we hope that everyone will have a better experience, including those who watch our proceedings. As for today, and this week, the virtual proceedings are now complete and are adjourned.

Virtual Proceeding adjourned at 6.57 pm.