In Depth

Coronavirus: has the Foreign Office abandoned Brits abroad?

UK government criticised for talking of repatriation flights but failing to follow up

The UK government has recommended that all Britons currently travelling abroad return home immediately, as more and more airlines cancel flights amid the coronavirus pandemic.

What has the government said?

On Monday, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) updated its guidelines to state that “all British tourists and short-stay travellers currently abroad should return to the UK where and while commercial flight options are still available”.

It added that this recommendation “reflects the pace at which international travel is becoming more difficult with the closure of borders, airlines suspending flights, airports closing, exit bans and further restrictions being introduced daily”.

However, the warning came too late for many in far-flung destinations – including Asia and Australia – with commercial operators cancelling flights as transit routes tightened entry restrictions, Edinburgh Live reports.

The Guardian reports that the FCO advice could apply to up to one million Brits currently out of the country, and comes after the government had already warned against all but essential international travel for 30 days.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: “We are strongly urging UK travellers overseas to return home now where and while there are still commercial routes to do so. Around the world, more airlines are suspending flights and more airports are closing, some without any notice.

“Where commercial routes don’t exist, our staff are working round the clock to give advice and support to UK nationals. If you are on holiday abroad the time to come home is now while you still can.”

The government also said it “is working with airlines to keep routes open and is calling for international action to keep air routes open for a sufficient period of time to enable international travellers to return on commercial flights”.

Furthermore, the FCO says British travellers should “contact their tour operator or airline now to arrange a commercial flight if they want to leave”, adding that there is an “unprecedented demand on the FCO’s consular services so all British tourists abroad should go online for the latest in-country advice”.

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What is the reaction?

To many, the announcement is too little, too late. The Telegraph reports that “thousands of desperate British travellers have been marooned around the world” already and are hitting out at the FCO for “not telling them to come home sooner”.

The paper notes that Raab has been accused of offering “empty words” of reassurance to those stranded abroad as he indicated he could not give “cast-iron guarantees” that everyone would be repatriated, particluarly after the reported closure of a number of UK embassies and consulates overseas.

The Times, meanwhile, reports that on Saturday the FCO said it was organising repatriation flights, following similar actions taken by other European countries and Canada. Britons were told they would be charged only £250 and that it would only be payable on arrival.

But the paper notes that since this idea was floated, those stranded abroad have heard nothing from the FCO.

Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel, told the paper this week: “While it’s right British travellers are being urged to return to the UK, the reality is there are thousands of UK residents stranded in dozens of different destinations with no means to get back.

“The government must improve its communication and provide British citizens fearful of being stranded abroad with useful advice. Where scheduled services have been withdrawn, it should leave no stone unturned to get these people on flights home.”

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