– in the House of Commons at 1:21 pm on 24th March 2020.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on what measures he plans to introduce to assist British citizens abroad to return home.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. 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. Over the last three days, we have seen 80 countries place restrictions on their borders. That situation is unprecedented in scale, and our overriding priority now is to assist the thousands of British travellers who need and want to return home, bearing in mind the hundreds of thousands of UK nationals who may be travelling at any point in time.
Following last week’s decision to advise against all but essential travel globally, last night I changed our travel advice again because of the rate of new border restrictions. We strongly advise British people who are currently travelling abroad who live in the UK to return as soon as possible, where they are still able to because commercial routes are still running. Where commercial options are limited or prevented by domestic restrictions, we are in close contact with the airlines and local authorities in those countries to overcome those barriers to enable people to return home. With my ministerial team, and indeed across the diplomatic network, we are engaging with numerous Governments to keep commercial routes open, particularly in transit hubs. The Department for Transport is working closely with airlines to ensure that travellers can rebook or find alternative routes home.
I know that hon. Members in all parts of the House will have had constituents contact them in relation to particular countries, so with your forbearance, Mr Speaker, I will update the House on just a few of those countries. I spoke to the Peruvian Foreign Minister at the weekend, and we have agreed special arrangements for flights to return British nationals later this week and for Peruvian nationals to get back to Peru. I spoke to the Singaporean Foreign Minister this morning, and we have agreed to work together to help those stranded to get back to their homes in the UK. Given Singapore’s role as a transit hub, this commitment to work with us to enable UK nationals to transit via Singapore is particularly important, not least for those currently in Australia or New Zealand. In New Zealand, the high commission is working with airlines, airports and, indeed, the Government to keep flight routes open and to reopen some that have closed. In Australia, the high commission is doing the same. It has also opened a register of British nationals hoping to return to the UK and is supporting British nationals via phone calls and walk-in appointments at the high commission, as well as updating social media pages.
For those trying to get home in other countries, we are providing as much practical advice as is physically possible. We would first advise all travellers to take a look at the travel advice online, which is the best and most comprehensive source of information and is updated in real time. If people are in need of urgent assistance, they should call our embassies and high commissions. They will be automatically connected to our consular contact centres, the global centres based in Malaga and Ottawa—[Interruption.] If David Linden will allow me. We know that there has been considerable pressure because of the restrictions being placed in countries around the world and the rate at which that has been done, with either limited or no notice. We doubled our capacity. We are now doubling it again to deal with the surge in demand. We are helping to reduce travel costs by encouraging airlines to have maximum flexibility on changing return tickets. Where people are in real need, our consular teams will work with them to consider their options. As a last resort, we offer an emergency loan.
More broadly, the United Kingdom is working alongside our international partners to deliver our international strategy, which rests on four key tenets: to provide resilience to the most vulnerable countries; to pursue a vaccine; to keep vital trade routes and supply chains for foodstuff, medicines and other things open; and to provide reciprocal support for the return of our nationals who otherwise are at risk of being stranded. These are the right priorities. We are working day and night to keep British people safe at home and abroad.
There is an MPs’ helpline that rings with no answer. Emails are acknowledged but not replied to. Embassies are closed, with staff flown home days ago and doors shut to our travellers. Guidance was issued by the Foreign Office yesterday advising British tourists to return to the UK where commercial flights are available, but they are not available. They are either banned entirely, are trying to transit via countries where no layovers are permitted, or are priced at tens of thousands of pounds and via airports that are expected to close imminently.
What help exactly is my right hon. Friend’s global network offering? He knows that the situation is dire, but he knew that last week when he stated in this House that
“we will look and liaise with the airline operators…to make sure that, where there are gaps, we can always provide as much support as possible for vulnerable or stranded constituents.”—[Official Report,
There are gaps. My constituents stranded in Argentina, Honduras, Venezuela, Australia, New Zealand, India, Peru and Egypt have much in common: an inability to get through to consular services on the phone, a standard acknowledgement email telling them to contact their tour operator, airline or insurer, and an increasing inability to find accommodation. Hotels are shutting, flights are cancelled, borders are closed and there are no routes home. Many are hours away from large airports in countries operating curfews. Those in Australia and New Zealand are looking for routes via Singapore, so I welcome the comments my right hon. Friend made about working with Singaporean allies, but to them, it looks like his words of last week were empty. I ask him today, as I asked him last week, to explain how he is working with airlines with unused planes parked at airports around the globe to bring our people home. He must get the process fully under way. The vision of British citizens sleeping rough on the streets of Caracas is not a good one.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. In relation to embassies, she said that they have been closed, but actually, a very small number of posts have had to be closed. What we have found—this is not a choice that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has made; it is a direct result of the restrictions that have been put in place by Governments in those countries—is that they have had to work remotely, and indeed, a large chunk of the consular staff work from home. That is not a decision that we made—it was forced upon us—but I reassure her that in all the jurisdictions that she mentioned, we are trying to respond to what I hope she will understand, given her experience, is an incredibly fluid situation. Some of these restrictions are being imposed with no notice or limited notice, and that is very difficult, of course, for our constituents, but we are making sure that we provide them with as much advice and support in real time as we can.
My right hon. Friend mentioned Peru. As a result of the work of the FCO, and having spoken to the Peruvian Foreign Minister, we now have agreement for flights to come out of Peru. There is, of course, a challenge because not everyone is based in Lima, which has the international airport, so we also have to try to work out how we get UK nationals travelling in more remote parts of the country to the capital. We are actively working on that. We have several flights lined up, but we also need to work around or try to overcome the restrictions that have been imposed.
I hope I have explained what we are doing in Australia and New Zealand. My right hon. Friend is right, and I thank her for her remarks, about the critical importance of keeping the international hubs open, and not just in relation to Singapore. We are concerned about other international hub airports. We must try to keep those open. Tomorrow, I will lead the discussion among the G7 Foreign Ministers on this and our wider international strategy for tackling coronavirus. This is extremely difficult. We have hundreds of thousands of British nationals abroad, but I can reassure her that, from the call centre to the support they are receiving at post, we are doing everything we can to give them as much support as swiftly as possible.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, and I thank Caroline Nokes for securing it. This is a medical crisis, not a wartime one, but she certainly gave the Foreign Secretary some friendly fire, and she spoke for us all in the concerns she expressed for the hundreds of thousands of British nationals stranded overseas.
Since the House last discussed these issues, we have seen some progress, especially in the planned provision of repatriation flights for British nationals stranded in Peru, and I thank the Foreign Office for its work on that, but as today’s media coverage shows—indeed, as is shown by the dozens of emails, calls and letters that Members from all parties are receiving from Indonesia, New Zealand, Morocco and Pakistan, where I understand no outbound flights are now available—this is not a crisis that can be resolved one traveller, one airline, or indeed one country at a time. 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.
They are all in desperate need of reassurance from the Government, so I hope the Secretary of State will take the chance today to clarify the statement he made yesterday, which was reported across the media as an instruction to British nationals abroad—indeed, this is a direct quote from him—to
“come home…now while you still can.”
Despite the headlines, the Secretary of State obviously meant that for individuals who have the option of taking a commercial flight to Britain, but does he accept that that is now very much the exception, not the norm, and that for hundreds of thousands of British nationals the option he highlighted is simply no option at all? Will he make it absolutely clear that the Government remain committed to helping all British nationals; that embassies will have telephone lines available so that they can get the support and advice that they need, whenever they need it; that the Government will find a flight to get them home, no matter how long it takes; and that they will be guaranteed continued accommodation in the meantime?
Does the Secretary of State have a plan to ensure the safe care and medical assessment of British cruise line passengers and their current health assessment? Is he negotiating with countries to ensure their safety during quarantine? Is he arranging safe travel home for all who are stranded? How is he keeping in touch with worried citizens abroad and their families here in the UK?
What discussions has the Secretary of State had with his foreign counterparts about the extension of visas, which may expire during the lockdown in other countries? What action is he taking on airlines to stop the profiteering that is going on, with inflated prices for flights home? In other words, will he send a simple message to those British nationals stranded overseas: “You are not in the last chance saloon; you are in safe hands, and this Government will get you home”?
The hon. Gentleman makes some important points, and we certainly want to give as much reassurance and as much advice as possible, but he will know—he has worked on the international brief for a while—that we have in this country a great tradition of travelling abroad, and that even if we take expats out of the equation we are talking about hundreds of thousands of people at any one time. Given the national restrictions that are being imposed, at pace and sometimes without notice, it is very difficult to give cast-iron guarantees about the situation. What we can do is lead internationally, in the way I described, with the G7, which we are doing tomorrow, and work as hard as we can with all our international partners.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the progress in securing the return home of UK nationals; I can tell him that we have already repatriated more than 1,000 British nationals, and also 254 non-British nationals, where we have had capacity, from 26 countries—places as far-flung as Wuhan over to Cuba.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned Morocco in particular. We have facilitated the return of thousands of British nationals via commercial routes, with 49 commercial flights bringing 8,500 passengers home—in fact, it is even more than that now.
The hon. Gentleman is right that we cannot do it alone, which is why I am spending any moment that I am not in this House talking to Members hitting the phones, talking to Foreign Ministers and working our way through the problems. We have talked to the Peruvian Foreign Minister, as I mentioned, and I spoke to the Singaporean Foreign Minister first thing this morning.
The hon. Gentleman rightly raised the issue of accommodation, because where people are travelling for two to three weeks, that is ultimately the issue for them. In Spain, where a large number of Britain nationals are holidaying, the original Government decision in Madrid was to close all hotels today. I spoke to the Foreign Minister of Spain and we secured the flexibility whereby they would not be kicked out on to the streets, as the hon. Gentleman suggested. We have also secured flexibility to ensure that the airlines can come in and, given the large number of Brits in Spain, we can secure those flights home. On the detail of the travel advice to which he referred, we have given that advice based on the rapid rate of new restrictions that Governments and jurisdictions are placing, sometimes on internal travel, which will inhibit people’s ability to get to the airport, but more often on external flights coming in and out.
The hon. Gentleman also asked, rightly, about cruise ships. To the best of my understanding, on the basis of advice from the Department for Transport, no further cruise ships are hitting the water, so we are dealing with the stock of existing ships. We have successfully returned 684 people, including 669 British nationals, from the Braemar cruise ship, which was in the Caribbean, struggling to find a port of entry. We did that via Cuba. That is a good example of reaching out to—[Interruption.] I thought that would get the Leader of the Opposition excited.
I am happy to say that we work with all our partners across the world; we would not allow dogma to get in the way of securing the rights of British nationals. I am proud that we have that flexibility and I am grateful to the Cuban Foreign Minister for arranging it. We also had close to 3,000 British nationals on the Azura, docked in Bridgetown, and they arrived back in the UK over the weekend without incident. We had 355 British nationals on the Norwegian Spirit, and they took a flight back to the UK on
Let me help the House by saying that I am thinking of running this until 2.15 pm.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the progress he has announced on the Peru cases, and thank him and his team for the discussions we had last week about the need for a repatriation plan for my young constituents who have been stranded there. Given that so many of us across the House have numerous constituents stranded in different countries and given the problems they are all facing in getting timely, correct information from embassies and consulates, will he impress on all the ambassadors and high commissioners in these countries that we expect them to be leading the effort? We understand the constraints that the embassy staff are under in these countries, but we are expecting the people at the top of these organisations to be leading from the front and helping to put together plans for all British citizens stranded overseas.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that. He is absolutely right in what he says. I can reassure him that every one of our networks takes this incredibly seriously. The ambassadors and high commissioners are apprised of their leadership role in securing the return of UK nationals or otherwise protecting them as best we can. I say honestly to the House that there has been a challenge because of the spike in calls—I have been absolutely straightforward with the House on that—and we have doubled the capacity and we are looking to double it again. We want to make sure that that first point of contact—the pastoral care that the consular officers provide—is there, and then further detail, the technical advice, can be provided. He mentioned Peru and I can tell him that the first flight has capacity for about 200 passengers. Obviously we would want to prioritise the most vulnerable. He mentioned his constituents. We will have a final manifest shortly, before the flight departs tomorrow. Given the numbers in Peru and, as I mentioned, the issue of the remoteness of some of them from Lima, the capital, and the airport, we are, of course, going to have more flights. We hope to confirm the details of all that in due course. I can also tell him that 1,000 UK nationals have registered with our embassy in Lima, so although there is this idea that we have not got a system in place in Peru, we have actually responded very swiftly.
Since Caroline Nokes left Government, I find myself agreeing with her on a regular basis, and I commend her for securing this urgent question.
As with everything else at the moment, I appreciate that this is a challenging and fast-moving situation, but we all have constituents stranded abroad who are worried sick about being able to get home, many of whom have no further funds to support their continued stay if that were to prove impossible. Many of us have constituents stranded in Peru, and I am grateful for the Government’s commitment on that. I have constituents stranded in Australia and New Zealand who have made every effort, as the Foreign Secretary has asked, to get home but have been blocked by cancelled flights, internal travel restrictions and international travel bans. Two of them are NHS doctors, and some of them have health issues, including asthma and a chronic respiratory condition, and are running low on medicines. I am sorry to say this, because I know that the service is hard-pressed, as the Foreign Secretary outlined, but they have all been particularly scathing about the lack of consular support available.
Can the FCO commit to providing clarity about the situation directly to UK citizens abroad who are worried and isolated, and about support for returning home, or support from UK embassies to get accommodation and access to healthcare that they need, should that not be possible? I strongly urge the Foreign Secretary to support citizens to get home, whatever it takes. In addition to our own citizens, will he commit to ensuring that all foreign nationals living in the UK will be treated with compassion and flexibility should they find themselves in need of essential treatment and care in this country, particularly if they are not able to imminently return home? Will he pass on the Government’s support to concerned embassies that are trying to look out for their citizens?
The first thing to say is that we have all had constituents contact us to say that they feel vulnerable or are stranded, and I think we all understand how anxious people are in that situation. The No. 1 thing we want to do is provide some certainty. That starts with the point of contact, which is why I mentioned the call centre. It also relates to the missions. There have been some mistaken, if not outright flawed, suggestions that embassies or high commissions have closed. The buildings may have been restricted because of the measures taken by domestic Governments and local authorities, but those embassies and missions—with a very small number of exceptions, all of which are subsidiary missions —are all open for business, with people having to work remotely.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the cost of flights. We are working closely with airlines and travel companies to ensure that as many people as possible can get commercial flights home in a rapidly changing and fluid situation, and we are encouraging airlines to be as flexible as possible when people have to change their return flight.
The hon. Gentleman asked about Australia and New Zealand. I have set out in some detail the support that is being provided, but given the new restrictions that the Governments have introduced and the question hanging over transit hubs, I appreciate that there is acute concern for people there. We have had to rapidly respond to that. I have given information to the House on what Australia is doing. The high commission is open. UK nationals abroad can call the embassy or register their details. I have an email here about how that can be done, which I can give to Members on both sides of the House. I can tell the House that more than 1,700 British nationals have registered their interest. In relation to New Zealand, in addition to the work being done, we are—as I think I mentioned in my opening remarks—working to find accommodation for those who want to know that they at least have a place to stay, if they cannot get a commercial flight out.
I have a number of constituents who are key workers, including in the NHS. What specific support can the Foreign Office offer to ensure that those individuals can come back, so that they can support the efforts against covid-19?
We are providing support right across the board. If there are key workers abroad, that just highlights the imperative of getting people back. I have to say to my hon. Friend that we are prioritising the most vulnerable, but where we can get commercial flights out of those jurisdictions, we are looking to have enough capacity to get all of them out. I hope that that provides him and his constituents with some reassurance.
I understand what the Foreign Secretary is saying about embassies and consulates being open, but the reality is that, when constituents are calling and calling and getting no answer, they assume they are not open because they cannot get any response. May I raise Bali in particular? British news reports that 150-odd British nationals are stuck at the airport after Emirates cancelled flights and said they would have to stay in Bali for three months. I tried to raise that on the Foreign Office line and the covid-19 line. The covid-19 line said nothing could be done and those people would have to remain in Bali. Surely the Foreign Secretary could think about commissioning a repatriation flight for all those British nationals stuck in Bali, including two of my constituents.
I am very concerned about the situation in Bali. The embassy office in Bali is open and has been reinforced from Jakarta. The consular team is in direct contact with UK nationals there. Flight options have obviously been curtailed in the way the hon. Member described. The Emirates route is closed, but operational routes are still available via Jakarta.
There are something like 6,000 British nationals in Bali—that is an estimate—and in fairness 2,000 of them are long-term residents. We are working with London, Gulf posts and the transit hubs in the way I described to try to free up many of those links to enable those people to get home.
The Foreign Secretary is making efforts to rescue people abroad and bring them home, but is he aware that many high commissions and embassies are simply not responding to British people in desperate need of help? The British Government have an absolute duty to deal with that without delay. Will he please use all the Foreign Office’s staff to ensure that they are there to look after people in their hour of need?
I thank my hon. Friend and give him this reassurance. There are only three posts that we have drawn down in their entirety: Wuhan and Chongqing in China, which are subsidiary posts, so they can be backed up from Beijing; N’Djamena in Chad; and Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That was done as a last resort, thinking about the situation there. We are ensuring that, in those jurisdictions I described where Governments have taken action, we have as much capacity, albeit working remotely. We have doubled call centre capacity and we are looking at doubling it again. I hope I can reassure him that we are doing everything we can to ensure that constituents of all Members on both sides of the House have a point of contact. Again, I stress that posts and the Foreign Office network are trying to deal with an unprecedented situation in terms of scale and the rapidity with which restrictions are being imposed.
As others have said, the reality on the ground does not correspond to the picture being painted by the Foreign Secretary. I have constituents stuck abroad and I am particularly worried for David and Ann Watts, who are stuck in the Dominican Republic after British Airways cancelled their flight. He has serious health conditions and has run out of medication. Flights are available from the Dominican Republic to European Union destinations, but they have been told at the airport that there is no guarantee they will be accepted into those countries, which is not my understanding of the situation. Will the Foreign Secretary speak to other European Governments and to the airlines concerned to make it clear that we should be mutually supporting each other to repatriate our citizens from wherever they are?
We are regularly talking to European Governments and I am speaking to my opposite numbers in Europe and across the world on a regular basis. I will look into the case of the Dominican Republic. Of course, it is less well travelled than some of the other routes, which is part of the challenge, but that just means we need to redouble our efforts.
The right hon. Gentleman rightly raised the fact that we will not get the hundreds of thousands of Brits stuck abroad back home by just lobbying airlines or engaging unilaterally on actions that we can control. I reassure him that I will lead the conversation on behalf of the UK at the G7 meeting, which will take place tomorrow remotely through virtual media, and that the four prongs of the strategy are: helping the most vulnerable countries; pursuing a vaccine; dealing with the economic response; and, critically, ensuring that we improve international collaboration on returning our nationals. That is true for me, as it is for the Peruvian Foreign Minister—we talked about Peruvian nationals here who want to get back home. We must ensure that we keep vital air links and, in particular, regional and international hubs open to drive that effort forward. I will lead the conversation for the UK in the G7 tomorrow.
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. Nothing matters more to Foreign Office staff than protecting British nationals, and I know that because I have worked at the Foreign Office in this crisis. Let us remember that it is not easy. The Malaga team took 28,000 calls in one day a few Fridays ago. As Foreign Office staff, we are spat at and abused when trying to help British nationals to come home. These staff are working in tough situations, so I caution any Member suggesting that there are easy solutions. Will my right hon. Friend kindly reassure the public that, as he has said, when an embassy is closed it is, in fact, not closed? Will he also confirm that the safety of our staff is important, and commit to scrapping the cost of calls to consular lines?
I thank my hon. Friend for paying tribute to consular staff and FCO teams, and the work that they are doing, and for the general points that she has made. I can reassure her that embassies are being kept open wherever possible in order to give British nationals who find themselves stranded or in a vulnerable position the support that they need, even if they cannot physically access the embassy or the high commission building. I can go further than that and tell her that we have spent the last fortnight reprioritising the work of the Foreign Office and our missions, so that the lion’s share—all but the most essential alternative business—is focused on the consular effort. We are limiting the drawdowns, in the way in which some hon. Members have suggested, to those that are required because of vulnerability or safety, and reprioritising them to meet the challenge of providing the consular services that we need.
I have constituents stuck in Peru, Australia, New Zealand and Spain, and I just wonder whether the Foreign Secretary might be able to use Members of Parliament as a way of disseminating information. Doing so might mean that multiple constituents are not phoning FCO lines but coming to us for information. I have to say that the current communication flow has not been acceptable. I have one constituent who is stuck in Peru, but in Cusco, not Lima. They want to get from Cusco to Lima so that they can get home. Can the Foreign Secretary try to ensure that we as Members of Parliament are involved, in order to take some of the load off the Foreign Office and help our constituents?
Yes. Cusco is a very good example of the challenge in Peru, but we believe that we have the capacity. We have the political agreement of the Government in Peru; we just need to ensure that the military, who run the airport, deliver on that. In Cusco and elsewhere across Peru, 1,000 UK nationals have registered with the embassy to ensure that we are in contact with them. This is a logistical challenge, because I think—from memory—it is at least a day’s drive from Cusco to Lima, so in all likelihood for most people the journey will require an additional internal flight, and we are working very hard to secure that. The hon. Gentleman will know the challenges involved, but certainly the more that he and all hon. Members can disseminate the contact points and information about signing up for real-time travel advice, the better; that would be helpful.
I commend the Foreign Secretary for his statement. At present, I have constituents stuck in Bali, Peru, New Zealand and on the Coral Princess. May I just highlight a couple of issues? Commercial flights in New Zealand are currently collapsing like a stack of dominoes. With the Coral Princess currently docked in Rio, it also looks as if my constituents will not be able to disembark and will be on that ship for another two and a half weeks.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I have addressed the situation in New Zealand at some length. We are of course looking at that as a matter of urgency. The big thing for getting people back from Australia and New Zealand is going to be the international hubs; I hope that he has been reassured by the reassurances that I secured from the Singaporean Foreign Minister first thing this morning. My hon. Friend also asked about the Coral Princess cruise ship. Our embassy in Brasilia is working with the Ministry there and the cruise operator to secure permission for the ship to dock at Rio in order to take advantage of the onward flights available to London. Some British nationals have already got places on board confirmed flights. We are doing as much as we can logistically to support them, and to get them and the other nationals home.
I have 32 constituents who are stuck in eight countries—that we know of. I am concerned that some of them are running out of money. What support might be available, how should they access it and what can my caseworkers do to assist?
I do understand the situation in which people find themselves: they planned to be abroad for a certain period of time and have run out of cash. Given the scale, the Foreign Office cannot provide a direct subsidy or grant. Our priority is to try to ensure that people can get back home and, in extremis, if they have run out of money, we are willing to offer temporary loans to facilitate that situation, so we are doing everything that we practically and realistically can.
Following the question from my hon. Friend Peter Aldous about the Coral Princess, may I urge the Foreign Secretary to check on what is happening with this vessel? The information that I had from Ken and Doreen Hodge on board is that they are heading for Fort Lauderdale in the US, and they fear that they may then be required to stay for 14 days in isolation before coming home. Will he make a particular point of checking what is happening to the Coral Princess and the people on board?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. I think that I have described the latest data that I have, but, of course, we are tracking the cruise ship in real time. It has been a challenge on that bit of coastline and, indeed, in that region, to get onward flights and to get permission to dock in order to take advantage of them. None the less, we are tracking the situation. I track the cruise ships in real time every day. I can also reassure the House that we have changed the travel advice on cruise ships, and my understanding is that no further cruise ships are setting sail, so we are dealing with the stock that is at sea and making sure that we do everything we can to get everyone home. I have already explained the success that we had with the Braemar, the Azura, and the Norwegian Spirit. We are looking to do the same for those on the Coral Princess.
I have constituents trapped in New Zealand, Bali, the Philippines and Peru. Some have understood only the message that their local embassy is closed. Others are still being told to contact their airline or their insurer, when, at this point in time, the Foreign Office is the only place that can help them. Even in Peru, where I understand that good work is taking place, my constituents are dismayed at the lack of communication on the internal travel arrangements that need to be made to get them to Lima. May I urge the Foreign Secretary to look again as a matter of urgency at the quality of communication that his Department is providing to people who are very, very distressed?
The hon. Lady can certainly help in that regard, because I can give her the special email address that the embassy has set up to make sure that all those who need to register for flights can do so. I do not think that the situation is quite as dire as she suggests; 1,000 British nationals have already registered, but flights are limited. We are working to make sure that we have enough flights to deal not just with UK nationals in Lima, but, critically, with the logistical challenge of getting to Lima in time for those flights those who are not necessarily in Lima, close to the main international airport, but in other parts of the country.
I acknowledge the work of Foreign Office staff who have already helped some of my constituents return safely to this country. However, I do have a constituent who is stuck in Bali. They are recovering from cancer and have a hospital appointment at Addenbrooke’s on Tuesday. I urge my right hon. Friend to press the airlines, including Emirates, to give more information to passengers who are struggling to find out whether flights exist and whether they will be taking off.
Yes, I certainly will take on board all of those concerns.
I have updated the House on what we are doing in relation to Bali. Flight options are still available, but they are decreasing hour by hour, and we are working not just with the Government and the transit hubs but with the airlines to try to keep as many options available as possible. Of course, in a case such as the one my hon. Friend described, we will do our utmost to get people on board the first available flight.
Like many others here, I have a number of constituents trapped abroad, including a group from St Andrew’s University who are currently trapped on the Honduran island of Utila with no medical services. I was advised last night by the FCO that commercial flights from Australia and New Zealand were still available, but with worldwide hubs closing, that simply is not the case. Although I appreciate that this is challenging, and I am grateful for the update, I probably expected a bigger list. People contact their MP when they have no other options, so what measures are in place to ensure that the info that we are given as MPs is accurate and up-to-date and that we are not causing unnecessary distress to people at this time?
I thank the hon. Lady and greatly appreciate the way in which she approached her question. Junior Ministers, and I as Foreign Secretary, are always available to provide as much detail as possible. We can always be contacted via our Parliamentary Private Secretaries. We are aware of the particular situation with the St Andrews group and we are in touch with the university about them. We have also made the Honduran authorities aware of their situation, so I hope I can reassure her that that has not slipped off the radar for either the Foreign Office or Ministers, and that we are doing everything we can to cater for them and for the others who are in Honduras.
I have a number of constituents abroad in difficulties, and that number is increasing as the travel situation gets worse. May I also place on record my thanks to the Foreign Secretary, his ministerial team and his PPSs for the prompt attention that they gave to cases I raised last week? I know from my experience as a Minister that everybody in our posts abroad and in the Foreign Office, from the heads of missions down, will be working their damnedest to get our people supported and home. They should know that they have our support as they work very hard to do so.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question and for his championing of his constituents, particularly when they are in a vulnerable situation. It is important to pay tribute to the incredible work the consular teams are doing. We are doing everything we can to reinforce them in terms of manpower and resources, from call centres to posts, and they are doing an incredible job. It is not just British nationals; when I talk to my interlocutors around the world, I hear that even some of the smallest and poorer countries have nationals doing the same thing. Given the number of Brits travelling abroad, the consular teams are putting in a great shift, but the reality is that we will do everything we feasibly can to increase that capacity and provide as much help and support as we can to get Brits back home.
Given that we are still in a transition period with the EU, can the Foreign Secretary clarify whether UK nationals can access flights operated by EU countries? I understand that a number of them are operating flights and it might be possible and easier to get back to the UK from European countries rather than from other continents.
In general, nothing in the transition period regime is hampering the repatriation effort. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that, given the number of Brits in European countries, we also have more airline capacity coming back. It is probably easier to pick up the phone to some of our European colleagues, who we know very well. The key thing is the bilateral dialogue: the calls I am making, and those that our embassies and junior Ministers are making hour by hour—not even day by day—to cover all the particular circumstances. The biggest problem is perhaps not some of the cases we all know about, such as people in Spain and Peru. Once we are on the case we can put a plan in place to get those nationals home. What catches out both British nationals and missions abroad is the fast-changing situation in smaller jurisdictions or those to which people travel less.
The Italian-owned company Costa Crociere has a number of cruise ships in and around the Mediterranean, in particular the Costa Victoria, which has literally hundreds of UK citizens on board. Unbelievably, they are going full steam ahead to dock at Venice. Of course, everyone on board is concerned about how they will get home from Venice, whether they will be admitted to Venice, and whether they will be infected with coronavirus as a result. Will my right hon. Friend make representations to ensure that these ships dock not in Italian waters but in other countries that will offer a safe haven and the chance to get home?
I shall certainly look into that particular case. The key thing for all cruise ships right now is to find a port of call where they can dock safely and to get those people a cordoned corridor to a repatriation flight as soon as possible. That has tended to be the basic two-point mechanism that has worked in getting British nationals back home, but I shall certainly look into that case.
I also have constituents stranded in Vietnam, Australia, Bolivia and Costa Rica, but I want to ask about the travel advice the right hon. Gentleman issued yesterday. Where UK citizens abroad have an underlying health condition and feel it would be better not to travel home and are able to stay, perhaps because they are with family, for example, does his advice potentially invalidate their insurance if they choose to stay and subsequently become ill?
I cannot comment on individual cases, but I understand exactly the hon. Gentleman’s concern. That is why, when we have changed travel advice, we have always said that people have to take into account the circumstances and look at the pros and cons of staying put if they have accommodation, financial resilience and medical support, as opposed to returning home, depending on how quickly and easily that will be to do. Of all the various things I can do, I do not want to give medical advice.
In terms of insurance, the standard terms of insurance tend to follow the travel advice rather than the other way around. What we cannot do—there are legal reasons for this—is base our decisions on anything other than the risks to British nationals abroad.
I put on record my thanks to Foreign Office staff in the UK and around the world, as well as the FCO team, who are doing an incredible job in very difficult circumstances. I am reassured by what my right hon. Friend has said about the conversations he and his team are having with other Foreign Ministers around the world. Is there more we can do not only through the G7, but the G20, which has a number of key transit hubs within its membership?
I thank my hon. Friend, first, for the credit he has given to the consular team at the Foreign Office, but also for raising the point of the G20. We also have a G20 leaders meeting, which will be virtual and remote, coming up. It is critically important that we make sure we work not only with the G7, the G20 and within the EU, but with all international forums, not least because of the broader range of countries involved and the ability as a result to secure routes back via hub routes and, in particular, transit routes. I have mentioned Singapore, but there are many others we can talk about, particularly in the Gulf.
I thank the Secretary of State’s Parliamentary Private Secretaries, who have been enormously helpful. He may be aware that in Australia, British embassy officials are telling people to contact their Members of Parliament, so there are two things I ask him to raise. First, the travel insurance companies are providing no help and are refusing assistance to people who have been stuck abroad. Secondly, there is the exploitative nature of some airlines. The cost to leave Australia with Qatar Airways has ramped up to 10,000 Australian dollars. Will the Foreign Secretary condemn that practice and take those sorts of practices up with airline companies?
First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for the tribute he paid to FCO staff. I can tell him that we are constantly talking to the airlines about limiting the additional cost expense put on travellers. Of course, the airlines are under acute pressure right now, with the number of jurisdictions to which they can fly limited. The high commission has set out the details so that people who are concerned can register so that they can be informed about the flights that will be organised to take them home. We have more than 1,700 British nationals who have already registered. That works, so the key thing is to disseminate those contact details. If he needs them, I am happy to provide them.
I thank the Foreign Office team for their help in getting constituents home from Vietnam and Morocco. A couple of young constituents of mine have just made it safely to Lima for their flight home later this week, but I still have constituents stranded in Mauritius, India, Australia, Bali and New Zealand. Will the Foreign Secretary and all his team continue to work hour by hour through the night to secure the airline capacity we need to get those constituents home?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I thank him for his kind words. With the effort to get people out of Morocco, where we have worked with the airlines in what was a model and template for the future, we managed to get 8,500-plus passengers back home. We will seek to replicate that in all the jurisdictions he has mentioned.
I have been contacted by constituents stuck in India and Pakistan because of the closure of the airports there, but all around the world thousands of planes and pilots are underemployed or, indeed, even laid off. Is there not a real role for Government to mobilise the aviation industry and the airports and, indeed, to co-operate with those other Governments to actually get the airlift working to bring our people home?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The Transport Secretary is already engaged in those discussions with individual airlines. There is a practical, legal question of whether those airlines can get into the relevant countries and jurisdictions, and that is why I will be raising the matter at G7 level tomorrow.
The Foreign Secretary has mentioned thousands, and in one reply he said that hundreds of thousands of UK citizens are currently abroad. Could he provide the House with a more definitive estimate of the number of UK citizens abroad? He will recall that last week I pressed him on the use of the Royal Air Force in extremis. What further discussions has he had with Defence Ministers on deploying the RAF when required?
We do not regularly have a register of UK nationals travelling abroad. I checked in response to his earlier question, and we are obviously engaged with the Ministry of Defence, but the approach we are taking is to keep as many commercial routes open as possible. We have already arranged or worked with our international partners to charter flights in extremis. That is the surest way to get home the number of people who are currently travelling as opposed to being resident abroad. The range is in the hundreds of thousands, so we are talking of a scale that is unprecedented.
Countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Peru have not only closed their international borders, but are considering imposing internal travel restrictions. Under such circumstances, can the Foreign Secretary reassure us that UK nationals who find themselves under lockdown will be supported to get from remote towns and villages to the main transport hubs?
In relation to Australia and Peru, there is a possibility of commercial flights, but of course they are limited. The reason that there is a possibility is that we have been working closely with those Governments and the airlines to make sure that there is a link out for UK nationals to avoid their being stranded. We are doing the same with New Zealand, and we will continue to put our shoulder to the wheel to get all those people, who might otherwise remain vulnerable or stranded, back home.
I thank my right hon. Friend for all he is doing. Like other colleagues, I have constituents all around the world, but the bulk are in Spain. Will he tell the House exactly how we will get them home as soon as possible?
In relation to Spain, where we have probably one of the largest numbers of UK nationals travelling and resident abroad, my hon. Friend will know that all sorts of domestic restrictions have been put in place, as has been the case across Europe. There are also restrictions on travel in and out, and indeed there was an announcement that it would close the hotels, which was due to take effect today. I have spoken to the Spanish Foreign Minister to make it clear that, as we pursue that effort with the commercial airlines to get the Brits back—that will take some time, because of the volume—no British national should be kicked out of their hotel as a result of the new regulatory restrictions being put in place.
My 78-year-old constituent David Keating is stranded in Brazil with his wife and daughter. He has an underlying heart problem and requires medication, and he has only nine days’ medication left. He has had four flights cancelled already. The consulate is telling him that other European countries are arranging flights for their citizens. Please will the Secretary of State intervene with other European countries to help him and his family get home?
I will check, but it does not seem to me to be correct that others are pursuing options that we have just sat on our hands and avoided. That is not the approach. I can tell the hon. Member that, in relation to Peru, we will be the first of the European countries to have a flight coming home, on the current projection. In relation to Brazil, of course we will be working actively, as we are in all the South American countries where we are particularly concerned about the restrictions put in place, to get British nationals—including his vulnerable constituent, who I understand has a particular medical condition—back home as soon as possible.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for all the work he is doing in returning Wolverhampton residents back home. I have two major concerns in relation to India and Pakistan. I have people there with medical conditions who cannot get the medication they need and cannot return home. Will he do everything in his power to return my constituents back to Wolverhampton?
Yes, I certainly will. I understand the difficult situation that my hon. Friend’s constituents find themselves in. India and Pakistan have had logistical challenges that are separate from the ones I have mentioned in the House, but I assure him that we are well aware of the particular challenges, and we are working day and night to try to overcome them.
My constituent Dean Lawson is stuck in New Zealand. He is hoping to come back through Australia, but that has not been confirmed. The Secretary of State has mentioned that Singapore was a hub on the way home. I am not here to embarrass anybody, but I understand, as of an hour ago, that Singapore is no longer an option. If it is not an option, may I ask him what happens with those people who cannot go to Singapore? Where do they go?
The hon. Gentleman is certainly right that the Singaporeans have introduced fresh restrictions. That is why at 8 o’clock this morning I was on the phone to the Singaporean Foreign Minister. We talked about the need to act reciprocally, and the understanding was very clear that we would work together to make sure British nationals can get back via Singapore—not just those travelling in Singapore but those who use it as a transit hub.
I have a couple of constituents stuck in New Zealand who are intensive care unit doctors. For obvious reasons, how can the Foreign Secretary help, please?
We are working to get all the Brits in New Zealand back home. I have updated the House in some detail about the measures we are taking. If my hon. Friend has any problem getting his constituents the advice that the high commission is providing, please get in contact with me and we will make sure that we personally make that happen.
Caroline Nokes talked about poor communication. That is leading to constituents contacting their Members of Parliament. They are rightly worried, and individuals here are worried, about loved ones abroad. Yesterday afternoon, the MPs’ hotline did not work when my office contacted it about a constituent stuck in New Zealand. Will the Foreign Secretary give an assurance that, if we are given email addresses or telephone numbers at the Foreign Office to raise individual cases, they will actually work?
The email addresses all work. The right hon. Gentleman is right to talk about the challenges the call centre faces, but it is not a question of it not working; when a whole string of Governments announce restrictions, demand goes through the roof. We understand that. We have doubled the capacity—I have mentioned that already—and we are looking to double it again so that we can deal with this issue. I hope that he will be mindful not just of the scale of British nationals abroad but of the rate of new restrictions that Governments—
The right hon. Gentleman says, “No”. Well, then he is staring the challenge in the face and not quite appreciating it. The rate with which changes have been imposed over the last few days has made it an unprecedented challenge, but I am confident that we will rise to it.
I have 18 constituents stranded overseas who have contacted me for help getting home. Some of them are running out of money or medication. I recognise the extraordinary circumstances that we are in, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, his Ministers and consular officials for the work they are doing. One constituent, Brianna Lewis, who is in Cusco, has lost her passport and has no travel documents. She cannot contact the consular offices to get a replacement passport or emergency travel documents. Will my right hon. Friend say what someone in those circumstances should do? She is worried that if she turns up to the airport, she will not be able to get on the plane.
I suggest that my hon. Friend contacts me or one of the junior Ministers and we will look into that case directly. Obviously, that creates something of a challenge, but not one that should be insurmountable.
I have around 20 constituents affected, one of whom is in Peru with his Irish partner Niamh, who has lived and worked in England for around 19 years. Last night they got an email from the FCO saying that it will try to help him but that it does not think it will be able to help her. At this hugely stressful time, they face being separated, in spite of the fact that Niamh was advised by the Irish embassy that their best chance of getting out together was to go via the UK Government. I wonder whether there is anything the Foreign Secretary can do to help those constituents.
That is a plight that quite a few people have found themselves in. When we have talked to the Peruvian authorities, we have been clear that we will bring back UK nationals and any foreign national dependants who are with them. We have had excellent co-operation with the Irish authorities. I have spoken to Simon Coveney in the last few days. We are always willing to share the burden of getting UK nationals, Irish nationals and European nationals back home, including their dependants, who may not be of the same nationality. I will look into that case.
This morning I received a couple of emails. One was from Lucy Kelly, who is stuck in Australia facing a 140% hike in air fares to get back to the UK. The other was from Kamaljit Dhesi, who, like many families from Warwick and Leamington, is stuck in India due to the lockdown there. Does the Secretary of State agree that we must either introduce some sort of price cap for these carriers or exercise some sort of requisitioning powers to get our people back?
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s suggestions, and the spirit in which he makes them. In relation to India, if there is a full lockdown we will need to negotiate with the Indian Government to facilitate access for commercial or charter flights. In relation to the other situation, we are working closely with the airlines, and that is work that the Secretary of State for Transport is taking forward. We want to get to a situation, given the huge pressure that the airlines are under, where we can provide stability but also the reassurance that repatriation or return flights can take place. This is an urgent priority for the FCO, and we are working closely with the Department for Transport to secure it.