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British Citizens Stranded Overseas

Volume 803: debated on Thursday 14 May 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have for bringing back British citizens who are stranded overseas as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is leading efforts to repatriate British travellers and their families who normally live in the United Kingdom. On 30 March, the Foreign Secretary committed £75 million for charter flights where commercial routes are not an option, prioritising the most vulnerable. We have now brought back more than 31,000 people on 146 flights from 27 countries, organised by the Foreign Office. More than 19,000 British passengers who were aboard 60 cruise ships on 17 March have all disembarked.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for all his and the FCO’s work. However, by early April, the EU had brought home half a million citizens. Under the EU scheme, Germany had chartered more than 100 flights for 20,000 citizens; the UK had chartered only six for 1,000 people. Why did the UK not play a full part in what the EU offered, and are we doing so now? I note that there has just been an EU flight back from the Gambia.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her remarks about the work of the Foreign Office. The teams both in London and in post have been working around the clock on the repatriation effort. We have taken the view that it is right to keep commercial flight options open, which has resulted in a larger number of British nationals—for example, in Pakistan—returning. Where there have been no commercial flights, we have then embarked on charter options. I believe that that that was the right decision and we have had a successful operation which continues today.

I have two friends who have been stranded in South Africa since late March. Offers of flights by British Airways have been repeatedly cancelled. Will my noble friend put pressure on BA or arrange government transport to get them and many others home?

My noble friend is right to raise the important issue of South Africa. We have run flights from there and we have considered, and continue to consider, further options. I am aware of cases in South Africa; my honourable friend the Minister for Africa, James Duddridge, is prioritising flights in that respect.

My Lords, does the Minister know how many UK citizens employed by the British Council and based overseas may need to be brought home as a result of the council’s operations closing down because they are financially unsustainable as a result of Covid-19? Is he aware that the British Council risks having to close altogether unless additional emergency funding can be provided?

I am fully aware of the challenges which have been imposed on many networks, including the British Council. We have brought back diplomats and staff of the British Council because of the health situation or lack of flights in certain parts of the world. I shall write to the noble Baroness on the specific numbers.

My Lords, I know that Foreign Office staff and Ministers have been working hard, but does the Minister agree that the savage cuts in the Foreign Office’s budget these last 10 years have contributed to the shambles of returning our citizens? One operator had to hire a private jet to return 10 Brits stranded in Turkey because all the Foreign Office could offer was to get them to Minsk. Why is Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe still so shamefully stranded in Covid-infested Tehran?

I do not agree with the noble Lord. We have had a massive effort, and I pay tribute to our network. The noble Lord will recall that the Prime Minister, as Foreign Secretary, embarked on an ambitious programme to increase the number of posts, and our diplomats have served us with great aplomb.

We are acutely aware of the situation of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and continue to lobby for her permanent release. We have been encouraged by her release on 17 March and its extension, but we continue to make representations to the Iranian Government to make her release permanent so that she can be returned home to the UK and reunited with her family and loved ones.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that some estimates of the number of British citizens still requiring repatriation are around 300,000? Why do the Government not charter some of the aircraft parked up all over the south of England, put some money into the pockets of the airlines and get all of our citizens still abroad who want to return to the United Kingdom back here once and for all?

As the noble Lord will be aware, we have opened up registration procedures in all our posts. For example, in the places that I cover, including Pakistan, we have returned all British nationals who were registered and who sought to return. We continue to operate charter flights. It has been a successful programme, as I said, across 27 countries, and we continue to monitor the situation. If British nationals are concerned, they should get in touch with the embassy or high commission, register their need to return and we will seek to facilitate it at the earliest opportunity.

I too thank the Minister for the efforts of Foreign Office staff around the world. I was stranded after the tsunami, and I well know what a sterling job they do. My question is about EU nationals who may be using UK flights to come into the UK in order to go home. Once quarantine comes in, will those people be expected to quarantine for 14 days in the UK? Likewise, where EU carriers are bringing home British nationals into countries which are imposing quarantines, will British nationals be required to quarantine in those countries, for example, Spain? At whose expense would that be?

The noble Baroness raises an important point on repatriation, and I thank her for her kind remarks. We have worked with EU nations, our partner countries, as well as with other countries in the repatriation efforts. We have brought back some of their citizens, and they have brought back British nationals. On the proposed introduction of the quarantine in the United Kingdom at the end of this month, the details are still being determined; I will of course share them with noble Lords once they have been made clear. We will make sure that this is communicated to all nationals returning to the UK or via the UK.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend the Minister and the Foreign Office team on what has been a massive effort. Can he assure me and the country that there are no stranded passengers on cruise ships who were caught out? Can he explain why it seems that the Foreign Office advice was slow to change, allowing cruise ship passengers to depart from the United Kingdom for often far-flung destinations and leaving them stranded when the quarantine was reaching its peak?

I thank my noble friend for her kind remarks. On repatriation, particularly from cruises, rest assured that we have returned all British nationals, as I said in my original Answer. It has been a massive exercise, but a successful one. On the travel advice, we were of course guided by medical advice and ensured that British nationals could continue to travel until it was necessary to impose limitations, which the Foreign Secretary did. We continue to review that travel advice going forward.

Following the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, airfields are currently full of aircraft and abundant air staff are furloughed. What justification exists for the inability to requisition repatriation capacity and capability at neutral cost to the taxpayer? Does a global co-ordination unit exist to share the practicalities of repatriation? If so, from where is it managed?

The noble Viscount raises two questions. On the point made by him and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, anyone who works within the charter sphere will know that this is not a free-for-all. Manifests have to be determined and air traffic has to be allowed for. Equally, airspace in various parts of the world has been closed, and we have been working under extremely challenging circumstances. On a central command centre, that has been operating through the Foreign Office. As I said earlier, we have seen a very successful repatriation effort.

The Foreign Secretary announced on Monday a special fund for those stranded, to help with food, accommodation and other essential items. Yesterday, when I checked the UK Government website, it still said that assistance was limited to travel. Can the Minister tell us when and how people will be told about this new fund? Is it a loan or a grant?

It is a loan which the noble Lord has asked about. It has been rolled out as a pilot exercise in four countries. We hope to announce the more general rollout in the coming days and weeks.