Government was ‘too slow’ to repatriate stranded Britons at start of pandemic


The government was “too slow” to repatriate Britons at the start of the pandemic, according to an influential group of MPs.

The report by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee found that there was a lack of “empathy and compassion” shown to some of those stranded abroad.

The chair of the committee, Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, criticised the department for giving “misleading and outdated” advice, which at times was “entirely absent”.

Around 1.3 million Britons were stuck abroad as the coronavirus crisis set in.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) says it worked “tirelessly” to bring those stranded home on 186 charter flights.

However the select committee says “too much reliance” was placed on commercial travel providers, while countries like France and Germany acted more swiftly to charter flights.

The report found Berlin chartered more than 260 flights for 260,000 citizens.

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British tourists returning to UK check in their luggage at Gran Canaria Airport, Spain
British tourists at Gran Canaria airport in the Canary Islands after the government advised against all but essential travel there

Mr Tugendhat did praise the “fantastic” efforts of FCO staff in challenging conditions but added that there were “some notable areas of weakness”.

He said £40m of the £75m allotted for repatriations was spent, which could “only be explained as cost-cutting”.

Mr Tugendhat said he hoped the unspent money would be kept aside for anyone stranded during a potential second wave of COVID-19.

As the UK revises its travel advice to advise against all but essential travel to Spain, the committee chair said he hoped lessons could be learned to ensure better communication.

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Mr Tugendhat said: “A lot of people didn’t know how to get back, didn’t know how to receive the help they needed.

“These are areas that we hope the Foreign Office will work on so that sadly, as now seems entirely likely, when they happen again the Foreign Office can act better.”

The FCO says it worked as hard as possible to repatriate Britons “against the background of local lockdowns and international flight bans”.

A spokesperson added that “although the immediate crisis has ended”, they have “retained a repatriation team for the remainder of the year and boosted investment in consular services and crisis management to ensure we are further prepared to support Britons caught up in the pandemic”.

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