Foreign Office neglected Britons abroad after Covid-19 travel bans, says report | World news
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) neglected British citizens stranded abroad during the peak of the Covid-19 outbreak, failing to organise charter flights swiftly or communicate meaningfully with those marooned, a damning report by MPs has said.
Efforts to repatriate 1.3 million British nationals stranded overseas amid global travel bans, were too slow, too impersonal with “clear failings” in the government response, the foreign affairs committee concluded.
It said government “cost-cutting” could be the only explanation for the UK’s failure to react like other countries such as Germany, which had chartered 160 rescue flights from 60 countries by the end of March.
“While most staff excelled, our inquiry also found clear failings. For many of those Britons stranded, the advice they received from the FCO was confusing, inconsistent and lacking in compassion, at other times misleading and outdated, and, in the worst cases, entirely absent,” Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the committee, said.
“We’ve heard stories from many vulnerable individuals stuck in difficult, and sometimes dangerous, circumstances. The lack of accurate, helpful information meant many felt forgotten and as though they had been left to fend for themselves.
“The FCO was at times too slow to recognise and respond to issues with their communication, and going forward must adopt a more agile and adaptable approach,” the Conservative MP for Tonbridge and Malling added.
The lack of charter flights early on meant individuals were put under enormous stress, with some incurring debt they could not repay as they faced “exorbitant” prices charged by commercial airlines.
The report calls on the government to review the emergency loans it granted some passengers, “particularly for those who are clearly not in a position to repay them”.
The committee also found the government had spent £40m of the £75m it promised as part of a rescue operation unveiled by the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, at the end of March.
The report calls on the government to ringfence the money for a possible second wave of Covid-19 repatriation, and for use by those living abroad who may need to return home because of the pandemic.
A survey conducted for the report found that 40% of those marooned in countries including Thailand, India and Peru were unable to contact local embassies for assistance.
Some who succeeded reported that advice was often out of date or unhelpful and “generic”, with many saying the communication they received from consular services “lacked empathy”.
The report, titled Flying home: the FCO’s consular response to the Covid-19 pandemic, acknowledged that the task facing Raab was “mammoth” and unprecedented and said it had numerous reports of embassy staff “working tirelessly”.
But it found there were “lingering questions” as to why the government let people “feel forgotten” and not use the resources it had at its fingertips.
“The government’s repatriation operation was too slow and placed too much emphasis on commercial providers, in contrast with other countries that acted swiftly and chartered planes. A small amount of chartered flights could have run alongside commercial flights in order to repatriate the most vulnerable,” the report said.
The committee praised the efforts of individual Foreign and Commonwealth staff but said there were broader lessons that the FCO must learn.
It called on the FCO to develop contingency plans for repeat crises of this nature, to put in place a new communications strategy and make sure embassy answerphone messages were not generic and could be altered centrally.
“The FCO must continue to offer clear and bespoke advice even when their services are under strain,” it said.
The FCO said it had mounted a large scale diplomatic effort to repatriate Britons. “Against the background of local lockdowns and international flight bans, the team worked tirelessly to keep commercial routes open as long as possible while bringing stranded Brits home on 186 charter flights from 57 countries and territories,” a spokesman said.
It added it had boosted investment in the “consular services and crisis management to ensure we are further prepared to support Brits caught up in the pandemic”.
The department disclosed that it had brought home “over 38,000 people on 186 special charter flights, from 57 countries and territories since it launched the rescue flights”. This compares with Germany, which led the way on repatriation, which had brought home 42,000 on 160 flights by 30 March, when Raab announced his rescue package.