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Covid-19

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:38 pm on 17th March 2020.

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Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Foreign Secretary 12:38 pm, 17th March 2020

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. We hear what he says on freight, but could he give us any guidance on what is “essential travel” when it comes to people? Does it include people coming home? This is a time of immense concern for tens of thousands of British nationals stranded abroad; they are not just dealing with the stress of trying to get accurate information and make their way home, but doing so facing the ever-present fear of infection.

I was contacted yesterday by Tom, one of the 65 British nationals in Cusco, Peru, which has announced a 15-day state of emergency, with its borders closed and the army enforcing a quarantine. Tom’s flight to Britain today has been cancelled and his calls to our embassy in Lima have not been answered. Why is that? Because the embassy itself has decided to close down for 15 days, just when its services were needed most. The Secretary of State said in his statement that our

“consular teams are working around the clock to provide the best…information available to UK nationals”; well, I am afraid that that simply is not the case in Tom’s experience. He says:

“We have received no advice or assistance…we are all extremely concerned at being stranded here.”

Across the world, there are tens of thousands of British nationals in the same position as Thomas, and all have the same message for the British Government: “Help bring us home”. As far as they are concerned, their travel is essential and it is no use telling them to rely on advice from the Governments in the countries from which they are travelling when, inevitably, they will be the least of those countries’ concerns. Nor is it any use telling them to rely on the instructions of their travel operators, which, all too often in recent weeks, have been at odds with the official FCO travel advice and are driven by the fear of insurance claims and bankruptcy, not by the needs of our citizens.

The Government cannot keep passing the buck to others, especially when it comes to repatriation. Yes, it is difficult, and yes, it is expensive, but that is the nature of the crisis that we face. In his response, can the Secretary of State directly address Tom and his compatriots in Peru and all the other British nationals around the world currently in the same position, and tell them what he is doing to help bring them home?

Will the Secretary of State reassure us today that the Foreign Office will learn the lessons from this fiasco by asking itself some very basic questions? First, why were there no clear protocols in place for evacuation and repatriation in the event of an outbreak such as this? If those protocols were in place, why were they not followed? Secondly, why has official travel advice from the FCO been so slow to match what is happening on the ground? This weekend, we had tour operators going door to door in French ski resorts, telling British families to leave immediately, while the Foreign Office website said that there were no restrictions on travel. Thirdly and most basically, as Tom’s case in Peru illustrates, will the Foreign Secretary determine why the levels of consular support have been so out of step with the levels of global demand?

When the dust settles on this crisis, as we all hope it eventually will, we will reflect on what has been a chronic failure of global leadership and co-ordination in which our own Government has sadly been a part. Instead of every country working together to agree best practice and apply common standards on testing, tracking, travel restrictions, quarantines, self-isolation and social distancing, we have instead seen a global free- for-all, with every country going it alone. Instead of the international community coming together to pool its experience and work together to develop a vaccine and a cure, we have again seen individual companies and countries working in silos. We have also seen a shameful attempt by Donald Trump to buy the German company that is in the lead when it comes to discovering a vaccine, not just to steal the glory of the vaccine for himself, but to hoard it for the Americans alone. The challenges posed by the coronavirus are fearful enough for the world without our leaders compounding them through their incompetence or their inaction. That is exactly what we have seen when it comes to this Government’s approach to repatriation, but it is part of a pattern that goes far beyond that one issue and far beyond our one country.

Will the Secretary of State undertake today that, as well as fixing the immediate issues that we face with the coronavirus, not least around repatriations, Britain will lead the way in ensuring that these outbreaks will be better managed in future?