Covid-19: Repatriation of UK Nationals

– in the House of Commons at 12:51 pm on 29 April 2020.

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Photo of Nigel Adams Nigel Adams Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development) 12:51, 29 April 2020

With permission, I would like to make a statement on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s response to the covid-19 pandemic. Our team of experienced diplomats here at home and in our embassies and consulates around the world continue to work around the clock, using our unparalleled international connections to help overcome this unprecedented challenge.

Since the outbreak in Wuhan, our overriding priority has been to help British travellers get home safely to their loved ones. We estimate that more than 1.3 million people have returned to the UK via commercial routes since the outbreak began, from countries across the globe. We have seen 200,000 British nationals from Spain and 50,000 from Australia return in the past month alone.

Keeping commercial options running has required an enormous international effort. We have worked alongside airlines and foreign Governments to keep vital routes open and to ensure that domestic restrictions do not create a barrier to getting people home. As the House will appreciate, as countries have increased travel restrictions, often without notice, commercial routes have ceased to be an option for some travellers. Thanks to a £75 million partnership between this Government and airlines, we have now brought back more than 19,000 people on 93 charter flights organised by the Foreign Office from 20 different countries and territories. In some instances, that means bringing home a few hundred passengers from small countries such as the Gambia, and from remote locations such as the outer islands of the Philippines. In other cases, it has meant returning thousands of British travellers, such as the 10,000 people returned home from India and the 2,000 thus far from Pakistan. In the next week alone, we will bring back thousands more travellers on further charter flights, including from Bangladesh, Nigeria and New Zealand.

I would also like to touch on cruise ship travel. More than 19,000 British passengers were aboard 60 cruise ships when the FCO changed its travel advice on 17 March. Working with the local authorities, Governments and cruise operators, the FCO has helped to ensure that those passengers were able to return home. We have provided consular assistance to many of them, and in some cases we have organised direct or supported charter flights for more than 1,500 people.

For those people who have chosen to remain in place or are still trying to get home, our consular teams are providing support 24 hours a day. To ensure timely responses, we have tripled the capacity in our consular contact centres. Our broader consular effort has been centred around supporting British travellers right across the piece. We have worked with foreign Governments to ensure that British travellers can continue to meet visa, immigration or documentation requirements while they are abroad, and we are offering financial protection, including through the same measures available to British workers and residents here at home, such as the coronavirus job retention scheme and access to mortgage holidays.

We are ensuring that British travellers have access to essential care, including food, accommodation and medical care. That includes psychosocial support, and we have been working with third sector and external partners to deliver that. Most UK insurers will now extend their travel insurance cover, so British travellers actively trying to get home will be covered for emergency medical treatment if they are still stuck abroad for at least 60 days. Our efforts and our aims show that we are committed to helping every British traveller, no matter where they are in the world.

Turning to the FCO’s role in procurement, specifically of personal protective equipment, with so many other countries in similar circumstances, we are grappling with a global shortage in PPE. Yet, thanks to the efforts of our domestic manufacturers and our work with international partners around the world, we have procured and distributed more than a billion items to those on the frontline. Lord Deighton, who helped to organise the London Olympics, has been brought in to oversee efforts to boost our domestic supply even further. In the Foreign Office, we are working tirelessly through our overseas posts to get medical supplies into the UK. More than 350 million items of PPE have been procured through our China network alone, and we are working flat out to get orders delivered from, for example, Turkey and Egypt.

We have also distributed more than 1,500 ventilators, with thousands more ordered and on the way. In the past week, we have received shipments of more than 4 million type IIR masks and 1 million other masks. By the end of today, flights will have touched down with more than half a million masks, more than 350,000 gowns, and more than three quarters of a million face shields. Meanwhile, the Foreign Secretary and my fellow Ministers at the FCO are on calls with counterparts around the world every day, working to secure new deliveries from abroad, with the support of our excellent and tireless diplomatic service.

From the start of this crisis, the UK has played a leading role in tackling the spread of disease and the world’s response to it. We are uniquely placed to do so, as a member of the G7, the G20, NATO, the Commonwealth and the United Nations, and as a major donor to the global health system. As the Foreign Secretary laid out in his previous statement, our international strategy is focused on four key areas: securing a strong and co-ordinated global health response, particularly for the most vulnerable countries; accelerating the search for a vaccine, more effective treatments and testing; supporting the global economy, keeping trade open and securing critical supply chains; and keeping transit hubs and transport routes open to support the flow of freight and medical supplies and, crucially, to bring our people home.

I have outlined our support for bringing British nationals home, and wish to touch on our good progress in other areas. We are helping vulnerable countries with their response to coronavirus by announcing up to £744 million in aid, including for research and development, and support for the World Health Organisation, UN agencies, non-governmental organisations and the Red Cross. Today, my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary announced a funding pledge equivalent to £330 million a year over the next five years to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. That will fund the immunisation of 75 million children against other deadly diseases, supporting the world’s poorest countries so that they can cope with rising numbers of coronavirus cases.

For a covid-19 vaccine, the Government have already committed £360 million as part of our domestic and international effort. That investment includes a quarter of a billion pounds to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations to support co-ordinated global research. That is the single largest contribution by any country. We are also helping to keep vital trade routes and supply chains open by co-ordinating closely with allies and partners in the commercial sector.

Finally, the UK has a responsibility to protect the safety and security of the people of the overseas territories, most of whom are British nationals. We have been providing tailored support to our overseas territories, ensuring that the appropriate resources are provided to them during the coronavirus response.

The scale and impact of this pandemic has been unimaginable but, working alongside our international partners, the UK has been able to demonstrate the kind of leadership, co-operation and collaboration that will get us through this crisis. I commend this statement to the House.

Photo of Lisa Nandy Lisa Nandy Shadow Foreign Secretary 1:00, 29 April 2020

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I confirm that it is as sunny as always in our neck of the woods.

I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement and for the weekly briefings that have allowed us to work together over recent weeks to bring some very vulnerable people home. In that spirit, I turn to a number of issues that his statement did not address, so that we can begin to resolve those, too.

I am deeply concerned that, weeks after Britons were advised to return home by the Government, there is still no accurate assessment of who is stranded and where. On Monday, the Foreign Office came up with a figure of 57,500, yet I have been told repeatedly that there can be no accurate assessment because, although some embassies record those who approach them for help, others do not. We do need to know who is stranded and where, so will the Minister now ensure that his Department now counts and publishes those statistics, so that we can bring those numbers down rapidly?

I was glad to hear that the numbers returned on charter flights are up to 19,000, on 93 flights, and I again place on the record my thanks to our diplomats, embassies and consular staff, but this is still frustratingly slow by comparison with countries such as Germany, which by early April had repatriated 60,000 citizens on 240 charter flights. By chartering 20 times the number of flights, Germany was able to bring its citizens home weeks ago—I place on the record my thanks to Germany and other countries that offered spare places on their flights to stranded Britons—and I am sure the Minister understands why people are upset and frustrated that their Government have not done the same.

I know that the Government were keen to reduce costs, but this reliance on commercial flights has left far too many British people at the mercy of cancelled flights, airline strikes, extortionate prices, domestic lockdowns and chaotic booking systems, so can the Minister commit today to rapidly scaling up the number of charter flights? It is not clear to me what the barrier still is. Ninety per cent. of the country’s commercial fleet is grounded. The RAF stands ready to help. Other countries have the same problems as we do, and in recent weeks I have spoken to many global leaders who say that there is a willingness to work together internationally to open airspace and to keep the transit hubs operating. He is doing his best, but this is unlike the problems that the Government have had with testing or PPE; we have the capacity to do more, and we must.

Many people on those charter flights told me that they are being charged up to £1,000 a ticket, so it would be helpful to understand where the £75 million that the Foreign Secretary announced has gone. Has it been spent and, if so, what on? After the Foreign Office website this week suggested that Britons in New Zealand might be better off staying put until the crisis is over, can the Minister commit that all British people who need it will be not just helped, as he suggested, but repatriated, and that the cost will be no barrier to bringing our citizens home?

I also suggested to the Minister last week that it be made easier to apply for emergency loans and that people be allowed to claim universal credit from overseas. He gave me a very enthusiastic response. Can he update the House on progress with that?

Can the Minister tell us what support is being provided to non-UK nationals, many of whom have lived and worked in Britain for decades? Many with whom I am in touch are extremely vulnerable, and others are NHS workers who are desperate to get back to the frontline, but some of them have been told that they are at the back of the queue, while others have been told to contact other countries’ embassies for help. We were recently shamed by the treatment of those who made Britain their home and have lived and worked here for decades, and we must not allow it to happen again. I hope he will take this opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to those non-UK nationals and guarantee them the same rights to return home.

Finally, I would like to ask the Minister about the mixed messages that those returning home are getting. At the weekend, a Government source told The Telegraph that a 14-day quarantine period would be introduced. When the Foreign Secretary was asked, he simply said, “I don’t know.” Yesterday, the Transport Secretary wrote to MPs to tell us that targeted screening measures had been carried out at UK airports but that those have now been stopped. That is really worrying. There are people entering the UK from countries where infection rates are rising, access to healthcare is limited and preventive measures are non-existent. They are travelling back to their families on public transport. This is surely not sensible.

We have discussed that several times. It is frustratingly one of the areas where we have been unable to make progress, and the UK is now a major outlier on this. South Korea, the Netherlands, Greece, Lithuania and Singapore all have self-isolation requirements in place. We must have clear advice for those returning to the UK, with a quarantine period and testing on return to limit the spread of the virus. Can the Minister commit to that today, and if he cannot, will he take it away and ensure that it is acted on? As always, I am ready, happy and willing to offer assistance and support where I can.

Photo of Nigel Adams Nigel Adams Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her appointment and on the spirit in which she has co-operated. We speak regularly, with our weekly phone calls—I think we are due to have one tomorrow—where officials and I are able to update her. I have been nothing but impressed with her constructive approach to this very difficult matter. I will try to answer some of the points that she raised. I am sure she will remind me tomorrow, when we have our phone call, if I do not get round to answering all of them.

The hon. Lady talked about the data, and posts having information on the number of people who want to return home. Our best estimate at the moment is around 50,000 people, and hopefully, by the end of today, we will have passed the return of 20,000 British nationals on charter flights. We will update her with the numbers tomorrow. It is tricky collecting all the data—I will not pretend that it is not—but I can assure her that, when we do have that information, we will keep her updated.

In the best spirit possible, I would like to politely remind the hon. Lady of something. She referred to the number of people who have been repatriated by other countries. Of course, other countries have taken a slightly different route to get people home, but I remind her and the House that more than 1.3 million people have come back to the UK since the start of the outbreak. That is a phenomenal number of people. We have worked with the commercial sector to ensure that routes are open and that flights are available. We are now focusing on those countries where there are large numbers of British nationals and where there are not commercial flight options. I hope she will recognise that our strategy of working with the commercial sector initially has paid dividends. We are now focusing on our charter efforts.

We are indeed prioritising British nationals on these repatriation flights. Our first priority is those who are vulnerable and who face the greatest risks; that might be because a country does not have a health service that is comparable to the NHS. But we always do our best to consider making space available for others—not least those who are key workers, in particular in the NHS—where we can.

The hon. Lady mentioned the advice that those returning to the country have been getting. Nobody who is symptomatic can take a chartered repatriation flight back to the UK organised by the UK Government. It is absolutely clear that they will not be allowed on the plane. People are given advice on the plane on what they should do. Anybody arriving on a flight from another country should follow the current Public Health England advice, specifically on social distancing and self-isolation.

We continually test strategies with scientists, such as quarantining those coming from abroad to make sure we are able to take any necessary measures. As we consider transition to the second phase, we will be looking at those issues. We have already had discussions with other Departments across Government to make sure that we take all necessary measures to preserve our way of life and to protect people.

Photo of Thomas Tugendhat Thomas Tugendhat Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

Thank you for calling me to speak today, Mr Speaker. First, may I say “Congratulations” to the Prime Minister, and “Ramadan kareem” to the many in our community who are celebrating the holy month?

What improvements is the Minister going to make to the communications system he has been using to communicate with British people around the world? In the Foreign Affairs Committee, we have been conducting a survey, which is online on the Parliament website now, asking people about their experiences, both good and bad, of being repatriated to the UK. The main issue we have found is the difficulty some people encountered with communications when they were abroad, or the inability to receive communications. There are good examples, such as the high commission in Kenya, and difficult examples, such as the high commission in India. Seeing improvements to that would be important for the whole community.

Photo of Nigel Adams Nigel Adams Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

The Chair of the Select Committee raises an incredibly important point. A UK national who is stuck abroad, who is concerned and whose flight has been cancelled by their operator wants some assurance that the Government are on their side and will assist, and communication is crucial. I totally accept that at the start of this crisis, our comms in some parts of the network were not as good as they should have been. There are some brilliant examples, which my hon. Friend mentioned; I point also to the great communications work that our high commission in New Zealand has been doing. We have put an awful lot more effort into ensuring that our embassies and our consulates up their communication game, because it is so important. As I say, people who are stuck want to know that, even if there is no news, they are getting some information. I totally accept my hon. Friend’s point.

Photo of Alyn Smith Alyn Smith Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is good to see you virtually.

I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. On a consensual note, I very warmly welcome the announcement of funding for the vaccines network—the GAVI programme—which the SNP called for some time back. I am glad to see we are in agreement on that. The programme will do a lot of good in the world.

Without getting into the specifics, I echo a number of concerns raised already about repatriation. I have praised FCO officials, who are working really hard in tough circumstances, but I have to say the statement seems rather Panglossian and does not reflect the experience of a number of my constituents and, I am sure, those of Members across the House. Will the Minister commit to holding in due course an inquiry into the FCO handling of this issue, so that we can learn lessons for the future, focusing not least on the defunding of the FCO network, which has left it at such a loss that it did not have the capacity to cope with this crisis?

On the procurement aspects, I am struck that the statement makes no mention of the EU procurement issue. In a quite remarkable sitting of the Foreign Affairs Committee recently, Sir Simon McDonald had to clarify his clarification. Reading from the letter, he said, quite explicitly, that “Ministers were not briefed” by UK mission on the EU’s joint procurement agreement, but he went on to say:

“Owing to an initial communication problem the UK did not receive an invitation in time to join” the EU’s covid procurement response. Forgive me, but it seems quite inconceivable to me that UK mission did not make London—call it that—aware of the existence of the schemes. Will the Minister therefore perhaps clarify whether officials in London were briefed by UK mission on the existence of the schemes? Will he confirm whether the “initial communication problem”, which meant that we missed out on procurement schemes that could have been of value to our constituents, was between UK mission and London or was it within London? Will he also assure us that the problems have been dealt with and that we will contribute to and participate in future EU procurement schemes?

Photo of Nigel Adams Nigel Adams Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his constructive dialogue with Government and also his SNP colleagues in the Scottish Government. I have weekly update conversations with all the devolved Administrations, and they are just as constructive. In reference to one of his earlier points, I reiterate that working with the commercial sector on scheduled flights has enabled over 1.3 million people to get home, so there is something to champion. Of course, the network has been put under extreme pressure. We have never faced anything like this and have never had to repatriate people from all over the globe, but we have done a pretty good job so far, and we will pass the 20,000 charter flight mark today.

With regard to the hon. Gentleman’s latter point, the permanent secretary of the FCO has issued a correction to the Foreign Affairs Committee, setting out that position and making it clear that a political decision was not taken on whether to participate. As the Health Secretary said, we will participate in the joint EU procurement scheme on therapeutics that is soon to launch, and we have been clear that we will consider participating in other future schemes on the basis of public health requirements, including on PPE.

Finally, I remind the hon. Gentleman that around 10,700 mechanical ventilators are currently available to the NHS across the UK, with thousands more in the pipeline.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

May I take the Minister back to the two positions stated last week by Sir Simon McDonald? These are not differences of nuance; they are two fundamentally different positions. Will the Minister share with the House the explanation that Sir Simon gave him for two such different positions being put out in the course of one day? More importantly, will he give us some assurance that if EU procurement processes are to offer a route to much-needed PPE being available in care homes and hospitals across the country, we will not lose out on that opportunity?

Photo of Nigel Adams Nigel Adams Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

At the risk of repeating myself, it is actually the case that the permanent secretary issued his reaction to the Foreign Affairs Committee and made it clear that a political decision was not taken on whether we should participate in the scheme. Again, to reiterate the answer I gave to the SNP, the Health Secretary has confirmed that we will participate in a joint procurement scheme on therapeutics that is soon to launch. We have also made it clear that we will consider our participation in other future schemes on the basis of public health requirements, and that includes PPE.

Photo of William Wragg William Wragg Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee

Following on from the question asked by my hon. Friend Tom Tugendhat, will the Minister further elaborate on the work done by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to source PPE supplies for our frontline health and social care workers? Are pre-existing supply lines working? That will be crucial in the Government assessing their key pillar— to have an adequate supply of PPE—for any decisions on loosening the lockdown.

Photo of Nigel Adams Nigel Adams Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. As I said in the statement, the Foreign Office is an addition to the domestic work we are doing on PPE. I have had conversations with our posts in China and from China alone we have had over a third of a billion pieces of equipment. That work is continuous. All our posts are on the hunt for equipment—that is one of their tasks—and they are doing a pretty fine job.

Photo of Clive Lewis Clive Lewis Labour, Norwich South

Like a number of Members, several of my constituents are still trapped in different parts of the world. One couple from Norwich have been trapped in New Zealand for well over a month. They are running out of money and have been refused a refund from their travel company. They face exorbitant flight prices that they cannot afford and are becoming increasingly desperate. Can I ask the Minister what pressure the Foreign Office is putting on travel companies to refund British nationals trapped abroad, and, to reiterate the point made by my hon. Friend Lisa Nandy, why it has taken so long to put on sufficient charter flights compared to countries such as Germany, which has already managed to get most of their trapped nationals home?

Photo of Nigel Adams Nigel Adams Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point. On New Zealand, I am pleased to say that over 600 UK nationals have returned. One of the problems is that most of the commercial flights back to the UK have been suspended, so flight availability is extremely difficult. We are now chartering flights to help to bring back the most vulnerable British nationals stranded in New Zealand. There are five initial Government charter flights, which started on 24 April. They will bring home over 1,500 people. On cost, I do accept his point about how some airlines have dealt with their customers and not given cash refunds. I do not agree with that. I think it is incredibly bad form for the airlines not to provide timely refunds to their customers. The cost of the repatriation flights is at a reasonable level, with a maximum of £800 if a flight is over 10 hours.

Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham

Through the Minister, may I thank the FCO team for all its fantastic work in bringing back my constituents from Fiji, New Zealand, India and Pakistan? I also know that 10 chartered flights have taken place from South Africa. However, I have an 80-year-old constituent just outside Johannesburg, who was supposed to have come back to Rainham on 4 April. She has been told by her tour operator that she is unlikely to come back before July. Will the Minister look urgently at this case? I have already raised it with the Minister for Africa, who has been exceptionally helpful, but may I urge the Minister for Asia to please do everything that can be done to help this 80-year-old constituent of mine?

Photo of Nigel Adams Nigel Adams Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

The FCO will of course look into the case my hon. Friend raises. I thank him for his praise for the work that has been done to return his constituents from around the globe. As he will know, we have got over 2,000 British travellers back from South Africa on our special charter flights, but we will certainly look into that individual’s case and see what support we can give through our network.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

The Minister talks a good talk. It was good news for my constituent when, for the first time in eight years, he was able to get over to see his ailing and elderly dad, for probably the last time. The bad news, however, is that it was in blockaded Gaza, where there are no flights in or out of what David Cameron called an “open-air prison”. Will the Minister, with whom I raised this issue on a conference call on 15 April, please have a word with his officials, who, to date, have told my constituent that it is his own fault, and get a family of four British citizens in Acton their dad back for Ramadan?

Photo of Nigel Adams Nigel Adams Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

We will take up that case, if it is not already being taken up. Frankly, I doubt very much whether a member of FCO staff would use language such as “it’s your own fault”, but we will certainly follow it up. We are due another conference call on Friday this week, which I am holding for right hon. and hon. Members, but we will certainly follow up that case for the hon. Lady.

Photo of Gagan Mohindra Gagan Mohindra Conservative, South West Hertfordshire

First, may I pass on my thanks for the work the Department has done during this unprecedented pandemic? Will my hon. Friend update the House on progress made by his Department in offering consular support to British nationals, especially in Peru?

Photo of Nigel Adams Nigel Adams Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

My hon. Friend raises the important area of Peru. It has been a very difficult country to deal with, given the number of backpackers and travellers dispersed over a very large area. We have got 1,100 people returned on five flights—those people are back—but there are no commercial flights running. We still have consular staff available and other staff in the embassy continue to provide assistance to British nationals in that region.

Photo of Lucy Powell Lucy Powell Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

It is very sunny here as well, Mr Speaker.

The travel industry is facing an unprecedented crisis. Although it is completely understandable given the current circumstances, the Foreign Office’s indefinite travel ban means it is very hard for companies to plan for the future. What thought is the Minister giving to how that advice might be eased when it is safe to do so? Has he been involved in the discussions taking place today with EU partners about the forthcoming summer holidays and how they may be made to work?

Photo of Nigel Adams Nigel Adams Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

On the hon. Lady’s final point, I have not been involved, as yet; I have been at the Foreign Office and here at the Commons. The FCO is constantly talking to the travel sector. Many elements of the travel industry have been decimated by this unprecedented event. It is absolutely crucial, though, that we focus on the job in hand. The FCO’s main focus is currently to get British nationals home. The hon. Lady makes a fair point, though, and there will have been discussions with the travel sector as we approach the summer holidays. I would be delighted to update the hon. Lady in a further call.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Conservative, South West Wiltshire

I very much welcome the Minister’s comments about Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. The Government’s leadership in this matter is extremely timely.

Will the Minister say what part the Foreign Office played in Exercise Cygnus in 2016, and what exercises the FCO has subsequently run to test the UK’s ability to repatriate British nationals in the event of a crisis of the sort we are now living though?

Photo of Nigel Adams Nigel Adams Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. In respect of Exercise Cygnus, I am not aware of how involved the FCO was back in 2016, but as his constituents and the country would expect, the Government regularly test pandemic plans. As understand it, Cygnus was a test of domestic preparedness for a future flu pandemic. Of course, the lessons learned from Cygnus continue to be considered by Government when we are reviewing our responses.

Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden Shadow Economic Secretary (Treasury)

I have a number of constituents who are still stranded in Punjab in India—some of them in real distress. I recognise the effort from the Foreign Office in chartering flights from Amritsar, but after several weeks of this effort my office is still receiving large numbers of calls from people with serious medical needs who have so far not been allocated a place on any of the charter flights and, importantly, do not know when they will be. When does the Minister think this repatriation effort will be completed?

Photo of Nigel Adams Nigel Adams Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

The right hon. Gentleman raises a very good point. As he can imagine, there were tens of thousands of British nationals in India. We have got more than 10,000 back on 38 flights so far, and we have another 14 planned. Of course, with India we are doing our best to prioritise the most vulnerable people who have registered that they want to come home. We expect that we will be able to get the number coming back from India to 13,000. We are repatriating people from multiple cities across India and will consider the option of additional flights after these particular flights, based on need and circumstances. The right hon. Gentleman flags up an important area of concern for us.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet

Can I ask for the Government’s help in getting my constituents back from Pakistan? I also ask the Minister to provide more reassurance to constituents here who are worried about the continuation of flights from covid hotspots like Iran without sufficient checks being made to make sure that incoming flights from different parts of the world are not potentially making our virus situation worse?

Photo of Nigel Adams Nigel Adams Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

My right hon. Friend raises Pakistan, another area where there are thousands of Brits wanting to return home. We have already brought back more than 2,000 people, and we have another nine flights planned, so I can assure her that, through our mission in Pakistan, we are doing our utmost to get people back. We are also putting on flights from Karachi as well because of the size of the country. With regard to the health points that she raises, I mentioned earlier that the current advice that we are giving people is from Public Health England. As we enter phase 2 of these repatriation flights and phase 2 of the pandemic here, we will be looking very closely at the advice that we will be giving, but no one who has symptoms of this virus can get on one of these flights.

Photo of Chris Elmore Chris Elmore Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Scotland)

May I take the Minister back to the whole issue of the EU procurement schemes? It seems at the moment that, at the very best, the situation is confused and, at the very worst, rather fishy, and the Minister’s answers are not giving us any more reassurance or clarity. May I ask him: was any Minister briefed about any of the schemes, and if not, why not?

Photo of Nigel Adams Nigel Adams Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I am at high risk of repeating myself on this point. I understand why the Opposition might want to probe this matter politically, but the fact is that the permanent secretary issued his correction to the Foreign Affairs Committee. He set out his position very clearly, and that was that a political decision was not taken—I repeat “not taken”—on whether to participate. We will be joining the EU procurement scheme on therapeutics, and any other scheme will be considered by the Government according to the public health requirements of the UK.

Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Conservative, Totnes

I thank the Minister and his Foreign Office team for all the help that they have given me and my team in returning my constituents from across Totnes in south Devon to their rightful place at home. None the less, there are some lessons to be learned from this situation, and I ask the Minister to consider that the Foreign Office might provide a retrospective analysis of how we have repatriated British citizens and present that report to this House so that we can scrutinise it in future, because I think those shortcomings will need to be addressed. Added to that, should we not also be looking at the co-operation that could be had between public and private sector when it comes to commercial flights?

Photo of Nigel Adams Nigel Adams Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

My hon. Friend makes a very sensible point. Every day, we learn the lessons from such a huge operation. This is something that we have never faced before. The nearest that we have come to it is the Thomas Cook repatriation, which was not too long ago—this is a point that a previous questioner asked that I did not get round to answering—so we will learn lessons from that. However, this is on an unimaginable scale. Never before have we had to repatriate this many people. More than 1.3 million people have been brought home on a commercial route. We have been working very closely with the commercial sector. A number of airlines have signed a memorandum of understanding with Government so that we can ask them to bid for charter flights. My hon. Friend raises a very good point and, no doubt, this will be something that we look at in the cold light of day.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Opposition Whip (Commons)

May I add my congratulations to the Prime Minister and Carrie Symonds on the birth of their child?

On 24 March here in the Chamber, I asked the Foreign Secretary about the situation of my constituents stuck in India and elsewhere around the world. Forty are still stuck in India, including Lashkar and Surinder Jhutti, who have been resident in the UK for almost 50 years. She is a specialist neuro care worker who needs to get back to work. There seem to be echoes here of the Windrush scandal in that they have been told that they are not eligible for consular support. She is needed back at work, as I said. Will the Minister intervene and help them, and all other UK residents, to be returned and repatriated to the UK?

Photo of Nigel Adams Nigel Adams Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

Let me answer the hon. Gentleman by referring to a previous answer. We are prioritising British nationals. These flights are paid for by the British taxpayer, so our initial priority is with British nationals. Of course those who have indefinite leave to remain should not be discriminated against in any way. The priority initially was British nationals. We are certainly not in the business of breaking up family groups. We want to ensure that families are kept together. I would very much appreciate it if he could flag up that particular case with my office and we will see if we can drill down and get those people home.

Photo of Antony Higginbotham Antony Higginbotham Conservative, Burnley

May I first thank the Minister and the entire FCO team for everything they are doing? I know they are working around the clock to return not just my constituents but all our constituents to their homes.

I am very fortunate that many of my constituents are now home from Pakistan, but there are still some left there. Could the Minister give some reassurance that the repatriation flights being run by the Government will continue until such time that commercial flights resume? I know that PIA was running commercial flights before, but until they do actually commence—I am not talking about promised commencement—will our repatriation flights still go on?

Photo of Nigel Adams Nigel Adams Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

My hon. Friend has been incredibly resilient in pursuing FCO Ministers on the individual cases of his constituents, and he is absolutely right to do that. We are launching a new phase of flights back from Pakistan. We have brought 2,000 people back on our special charters. On Pakistan International Airlines, it is worth pointing out that we are working very closely with the Government of Pakistan and PIA to ensure the continuation of flights alongside the charter flights. It is also worth mentioning that since 4 April, through that negotiation, over 13,500 people have returned to the UK on 40 commercial PIA flights, alongside our charter flights, which are in addition to that number.

More than two hours having elapsed since the commencement of hybrid scrutiny proceedings, the Speaker brought them to a conclusion (Order, 21 April).