Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Covid-19 Update - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:21 pm on 17th March 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State 3:21 pm, 17th March 2020

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement delivered in the other place by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary on Covid-19. The Statement is as follows:

“Thank you, Mr Speaker. As the Prime Minister has said, the coronavirus pandemic is the worst public health crisis for a generation. It is an unsettling time for families up and down the country, so we need a united effort to tackle Covid-19 effectively and come through this challenge, as I am confident we can and we will.

Following on from, and consistent with, the domestic measures announced by the Prime Minister yesterday, and based on the fast-changing international circumstances, today I am announcing changes to the FCO travel advice. UK travellers abroad now face widespread international border restrictions and lockdowns in various countries. The FCO will always consider the safety and security of British nationals. So, with immediate effect, I have taken the decision to advise British nationals against non-essential travel globally for an initial period of 30 days, subject to review.

This decision has been taken based on the domestic measures introduced here in the United Kingdom, along with the changes to border and a range of other restrictions that are now being taken by countries around the world. The speed and range of those measures across other countries is unprecedented. Some of those decisions are being made without notice. In some countries, even in countries or particular areas where cases of Covid-19 have not yet been reported, local authorities are none the less imposing restriction on movement and are doing so with little or no notice at all. In the light of these circumstances, we want to reduce the risk of leaving vulnerable British tourists and visitors stranded overseas. We will of course keep this advice under review and amend it as soon as the situation responsibly allows.

The Government are keenly aware that international freight services such as shipping and haulage are vital for ensuring the continuity of the supply of essential food, goods and material to the UK. We regard this kind of travel as essential, and we will work with industry to ensure detailed advice that maintains the flow of goods while also protecting the well-being of staff working on those routes. The Department for Transport will be leading this work with the freight sector, with the objective of minimising disruption to those routes as far as possible.

At the same time, FCO consular teams are working around the clock to provide the best and most up-to-date information that we can possibly provide to UK nationals. In the last week alone we have made more than 430 changes to FCO travel advice, and obviously we will continue to keep that advice under close and constant review.

We are providing support to British nationals who have been impacted by coronavirus while travelling. During the initial outbreak or containment phrase, we arranged the repatriation of more than 200 vulnerable British nationals from China between 31 January and 9 February. We took that action to support British nationals and control the return of those possibly exposed to Covid-19 at the earliest point in the crisis when it appeared that the virus might be contained in China.

In other cases, such as that of the British nationals affected by Covid-19 infection in a hotel in Tenerife, we worked with travel companies and airlines to ensure that those concerned were safely brought home. We have also changed our travel advice to advise people over 70 or with underlying health conditions against travelling on cruises, to protect those who are most at risk from coronavirus.

We have arranged repatriation from cruise ships, including most recently the 131 UK nationals returned from the “Grand Princess”, docked in California, who arrived home last Wednesday. We have been working intensively with the Cuban authorities and Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines to ensure that all British nationals are able to return quickly and safely to the UK, in relation of course to the “Braemar” cruise liner. We are doing all that we can to ensure that they return to the UK on flights from José Martí airport in Havana within the next 48 hours. The Foreign Secretary spoke with the Cuban Foreign Minister twice over the weekend, and we are very grateful to Foreign Minister Rodríguez Parrilla and the Cuban Government for swiftly enabling this operation, and for their close co-operation in making sure that it could be successful.

As well as those repatriations, UK consular teams are working with those affected by difficult quarantine conditions, the closure of tourist resorts—for example, in Europe and north Africa—or new regulations introduced in various countries where UK nationals are visiting. We will do everything in our power to get those British nationals affected the care, support and practical advice that they need.

We also need to be clear about our capacity to repatriate people from abroad, given the scale of the numbers. We have taken action where necessary, but no one should be under any illusions: it is costly and complicated to co-ordinate, so government-supported repatriations have been undertaken only in exceptional circumstances. Ultimately the primary responsibility for managing outbreaks of Covid-19 and quarantine measures must rest with the country in which the outbreak has occurred.

FCO teams around the world are working urgently to ensure that Governments have sensible plans to enable the return of British and other travellers, and, crucially, to keep borders open for a sufficient period of time to enable returns to take place on commercial flights wherever possible. Following today’s change in travel advice, British nationals who decide that they still need to travel abroad should be fully aware of the increased risk of doing so. That includes the risk that they may not be able to get home if travel restrictions are put in place. So we urge anyone still considering travel to be realistic about the level of disruption that they are willing and able to endure, and to make decisions in light of the unprecedented conditions that we now face.

Today’s travel guidance follows the domestic measures announced yesterday. It forms part of our national effort to meet the international challenge presented by coronavirus—a challenge that we will rise to as a Government and as a country. I commend this Statement to the House.”