Cost cutting was partly to blame for a failure by the government to provide sufficient support to Britons stranded abroad by the coronavirus pandemic, a parliamentary inquiry has found.
A report by a cross-party committee of MPs said the government’s operation to assist 1.3 million British nationals was “too slow” and placed “too much reliance” on people booking their own tickets home on commercial airlines, while other nations acted more swiftly by booking charter flights.
Travellers who found themselves with no way to get back from remote corners of the globe were treated with a lack of “empathy and compassion” in some cases, while the Foreign and Commonwealth Office gave advice which was often “misleading and outdated” and sometimes “entirely absent”, found the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.
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More than 1,250 travellers submitted accounts to the committee’s inquiry of their experiences of the repatriation operation, and while some were complimentary about the efforts of diplomats and consular staff, others recounted tales of confusion and distress.
One UK citizen who was in Australia when the FCO issued advice to return home in March said: “I feel let down, abandoned and totally uncared for by every single person I’ve spoken to in the last two weeks. I’ve been made to feel like being trapped here is my own fault, despite booking three flights home that all cancelled without refunds.”
And a Briton stuck in Peru said: “We were left with no support, no communication, no assistance whatsoever. We were abandoned with no one to turn to.”
Describing the experience as “extremely disturbing”, the holidaymaker said: “I no longer feel part of this country or society. Truly disgraceful.” Another Briton who made it back from Peru described being “on the verge of a breakdown” due to lack of support and information, and recounted continuing nightmares of missing flights home even after returning to the UK.
The majority of travellers who reported their experiences to the committee were visiting Pakistan, New Zealand, Australia, India, the Philippines or Peru when restrictions were announced and flights cancelled, suggesting that these were the areas where problems were most acute.
More than 55 per cent of them said it had been difficult to make contact with an embassy, consulate or high commission and more than 60 per cent said advice received was unhelpful.
“Many UK citizens stuck abroad reported that they were unable to access the information that they needed, whilst others were not treated with the empathy and compassion that they should expect,” the report said.
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“Though there were notable successes, the FCO was outpaced by events, leaving many seeing it as out of touch with the needs of those in difficulty.
“Too many UK citizens were not provided with the support that they should reasonably expect to receive.”
The MPs said that “little was done” to provide financial support for citizens facing hardship while stuck abroad.
And they criticised the department for only spending £40m of the £75m allotted for repatriations, in a move which the committee’s Conservative chair Tom Tugendhat said could “only be explained as cost-cutting”.
He said the inquiry concluded there had been “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,” he said.
“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 MPs said France and Germany were among countries to have placed greater focus on charter flights early on in the crisis and were able to repatriate their citizens “more quickly”.
The UK chartered 186 flights to support the 1.3 million nationals travelling abroad, whereas Berlin chartered more than 260 flights for 260,000 citizens, they said.
The FCO was criticised for only offering emergency loans as a “last resort” and the committee said it was “disappointed” the department considered it was “acceptable advice” to tell citizens to crowdfund for help returning home.
The committee said the unspent money should be “kept aside” for anyone stranded during a potential second wave of Covid-19 and should be used to help Britons who permanently reside overseas to return to the UK.
An FCO spokesperson said: “The FCO mobilised a large scale diplomatic and repatriation effort to bring home 1.3 million people in the face of the unprecedented crisis that Covid-19 presented.
“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.
“Although the immediate crisis has ended, we have retained a repatriation team for the remainder of the year and boosted investment in our consular services and crisis management to ensure we are further prepared to support Brits caught up in the pandemic.”