The FCO has advised against all non-essential global travel and has urged Britons travelling abroad to return to the UK as soon as possible. MPs have questioned the government's response. Here we look at what the FCO has done to help British travellers return home and reaction from MPs and the media. The paper provides information on how to access FCO travel advice.

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FCO actions

The FCO is, at the time of writing, advising all Britons who are travelling to return to the UK as soon as possible and advises against all non-essential travel anywhere in the world. The FCO has repatriated some Britons, from cruise ships and a select number of countries. The Government has set aside £75 million to enable special charter flights to priority countries to bring back UK residents. The Foreign Secretary estimates there are hundreds of thousands of British nationals abroad.

Advice against non-essential travel

On 17 March 2020 the FCO advised against global travel. Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, in a statement in the House said:

UK travellers abroad now face wide-spread international border restrictions, and lockdowns in various countries… with immediate effect, I have taken the decision to advise British nationals against non-essential travel globally, for an initial period of 30 days.

Advice for travelling Britons to return to the UK

On 23 March 2020 the FCO advised all British travellers to return to the UK now. The advice had changed because of the rate of new border restrictions. Dominic Raab urged British people who live in the UK but are travelling abroad to return to the UK as soon as possible.

Keeping routes open

On 24 March, Dominic Raab told the House that the FCO was working with airlines and governments to enable commercial flights to continue and to overcome domestically imposed restrictions to enable Britons to leave and, if necessary, transit countries. The Department of Transport is working with airlines to ensure that travellers can rebook or find alternative routes home.

In his comments Raab said the he had:

  • agreed special arrangements with Peru for flights to return British nationals for to return Peruvian nationals in the UK, and is working on how to get UK nationals travelling in more remote parts of the country to the capital, Lima. One thousand UK nationals have registered with the embassy.
  • spoken to the Singaporean Foreign Minister to agree to work with the UK to enable UK nationals to transit via Singapore
  • confirmed the High Commissions in New Zealand and Australia are working with airlines, airports and the respective governments to keep flight routes open and reopen some that have closed.
  • discussed with the Spanish Government options for keeping hotels open in Spain and for flights to come in and bring Britons back to the UK
  • planned discussions on keeping international transit hubs open with G7 Foreign Ministers

He added “For those trying to get home in other countries, we are providing as much practical advice as is physically possible”.

Special charter flights

On 30 March 2020 the Foreign Secretary announced the Government will provide up to £75 million to enable special charter flights to priority countries to bring back UK residents.

The Foreign Secretary did not identify the priority countries but said the FCO will be prioritising the most vulnerable. The FCO separately explained how it would prioritise special charter flights:

Special charter flights for countries with no commercial routes will be prioritised according to the number of stranded British travellers and their vulnerability, including an assessment of the local health provision. In some places, access for flights to land and the ability to move around within the country to assemble for return flights will also be decisive factors.

Dominic Raab also announced a new partnership with the airline industry to help Britons return to the UK via commercial flights. He said “where commercial routes remain an option, airlines will be responsible for getting passengers home”. This means offering alternative flights at little to no cost and allowing passengers to change tickets between carriers. He urged travellers to book tickets as soon as possible.

Financial support for individuals abroad

The Foreign Secretary expressed sympathy for those who are running out of money while abroad but said “given the scale, the Foreign Office cannot provide a direct subsidy or grant” to individuals. He said in extremis, the FCO is willing to offer temporary loans to facilitate people getting back home. This is in line with existing FCO policy on emergency loans for repatriation.

Repatriation

As of 24 March the FCO has organised the repatriation of more than 1,000 British nationals, and 254 non-British nationals, from 26 countries.

The Foreign Secretary discussed the FCO’s capacity to repatriate people from abroad in his 17 March 2020 statement:

We have taken action where necessary, but no one should be under any illusions: it is costly and complicated to co-ordinate, so Government-supported repatriations have been undertaken only in exceptional circumstances.

Cruise ships

Initial repatriation efforts focused on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in February 2020. The first Briton to die from coronavirus, in late February 2020, was on that ship. A number of Britons had been placed in isolation on cruise ships to try and contain the virus. More recently, as more travel restrictions have been applied, the focus has been on enabling cruise ships to dock and safely disembark passengers. The Foreign Secretary said thousands of Britons had been safely returned to the UK from cruise ships, adding “we have a specific eye and focus on making sure that Brits on board those cruise ships get back safe and sound“.

Response from MPs

MPs, many of whom have constituents who are travelling abroad and struggling to return to the UK, have reported concerns from constituents who have not been able to contact embassies.

MPs have questioned the FCO’s speed of response and repatriation efforts, often citing individual constituent cases. MPs have also praised FCO staff.

MPs questioned the Foreign Secretary at length on 17 March 2020 (during oral questions to the Foreign Office and in response to an oral statement) and on 24 March 2020 in response to an urgent question tabled by Caroline Nokes.

In her urgent question, Caroline Nokes reported constituents were in a dire situation: they were unable to get through to consular services on the phone and faced an increasing inability to find accommodation or airline routes open. 

Barry Gardiner echoed Ms Nokes’ comments, saying:

It is a crisis affecting British nationals in every continent, many of them accompanied by young children, many of them with worsening health conditions, and many of them running out of money and in danger of losing their accommodation.

Gavin Newlands was among several MPs who voiced concerns about constituents with health problems who are running low on medicines or who are running out of funds. Mr Newlands said some constituents have been “particularly scathing about the lack of consular support available”.

Ben Bradshaw similarly said “the reality on the ground does not correspond to the picture being painted” by constituents stuck abroad. David Linden said “the current communication flow has not been acceptable”.

A number of MPs also praised Foreign Office staff during the 24 March debate. Alicia Kearns, who discussed the pressure of having previously worked in the Foreign Office, said:

It is important that we put on record the enormous thanks of everyone in this House to the FCO staff who are working in the crisis centre and across the country, and who have brought thousands of Brits back to the UK in the last few weeks.

Access to embassies

Several MPs have reported constituents have been unable to get through to embassies or the Foreign Office. The Foreign Secretary said:

we have FCO staff in all our 280 posts in 168 countries and 10 overseas territories, and they are working round the clock to respond to this global pandemic

Information for Briton’s travelling abroad

The Gov.uk: Coronavirus webpage highlights travel information for Britons relating to the coronavirus pandemic. Currently it includes:

Some media websites are collating information on travel restrictions worldwide. The Guardian, for example, is regularly its Coronavirus travel updates: which countries have restrictions and FCO warnings in place?. Readers should be mindful restrictions are constantly changing and anyone needing information on a specific country should consult the relevant government’s information websites as well as the UK FCO sites listed in this briefing paper.

Social media updates

The FCO’s travel feed on twitter provides general and country-specific updates on special charter flights, travel information and current restrictions relating to the coronavirus pandemic: @FCOtravel

Many British embassies, high commissions and consulates are providing regular updates for British travellers on their social media twitter and facebook pages. These can be found via Gov.uk: Find a British embassy, high commission or consulate. This also provides embassy addresses and contact numbers.

Travel Insurance

The FCO advises individuals who are abroad and want to return to the UK to check their travel insurance. Library insight Coronavirus and insurance provides some general information on insurance. The Association of British Insurers has a dedicated webpage on travel insurance as part of its Coronavirus information hub.

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