With 50,000 Britons reportedly stranded in foreign countries amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK government has received criticism for its failure to help those affected.
Today, Tuesday 31st March, the Foreign Office has announced it will be working with airlines to ensure that those stranded will be flown home and, in doing so, has pledged £75 million to special charter flights which will return UK nationals from countries where commercial flights are no longer available. It has, however, given no indication as to when this may be possible.
What’s more, many remain unconvinced as the issue stretches far beyond the availability of commercial flights. British nationals have spent weeks in a precarious state of limbo, with an overwhelming lack of guidance from the British embassy. Those stranded range from young backpackers to retirees; families with young children to those visiting overseas for business.
ImmiNews spoke with Rebecca Potter; a 23-year-old British citizen who had set out to travel across Australia and South East Asia prior to the pandemic. Fortunately, Rebecca managed to secure a flight back to the UK on Saturday 28th March, however she is aware that many were unable to fork out on the extortionately hiked-up flight costs and are therefore still in need of help.
“People are paying thousands of pounds in the hope of getting home but actually these flights don’t exist or are being cancelled”
Speaking with Rebecca, it became apparent that the overarching problem lies with the greed and exploitation of airlines which have significantly increased the cost of flights, with some popular routes from Australia to the UK now selling for £12,000. It is not simply that commercial flights are no longer available – though this is an issue in and of itself – it is that those which are still operating are over triple the standard cost.
While the government’s announcement is certainly welcomed, some fear it may not be enough, as crucial questions remain unanswered.
The government claims to have struck an arrangement with the likes of BA, Virgin and EasyJet which will see these airlines take responsibility for returning stranded Britons to the UK. Yet this does not guarantee that airlines will reduce their costs.
The government’s briefing merely outlines that airlines should offer alternative flights at little to no cost where routes have been cancelled. This does not, however, account for those who cannot afford such flights in the first place.
Throughout the duration of her time stranded in Australia up until just three days ago, Rebecca spoke of the difficulties in obtaining a flight home to the UK from Brisbane:
“The problem is that flight tickets are still being sold online, and these flights either don’t exist at all or they’re transiting through countries such as Singapore which British citizens are no longer allowed to travel through. What this means is that people are paying thousands of pounds in the hope of getting home but actually these flights don’t exist or are being cancelled.
“No one is accepting any responsibility for us, we’re just being passed from pillar to post. We spoke to the British embassy on the phone, they told us that we needed to speak to the British consulate in Brisbane; we sat outside for five and a half hours and all we were offered was a piece of paper that had a phone number on it that didn’t connect to anything and an email address from which we’ve received no response.”
Travel agents similarly told British nationals that they could no longer provide help, and airlines such as Emirates refused to issue refunds for cancelled flights, instead offering credit which could be used towards another flight. The problem, of course, is that this credit becomes redundant as airlines are increasingly postponing or indefinitely suspending their services as the situation escalates.
“No one is accepting any responsibility for us, we’re just being passed from pillar to post”
The main concern among British citizens who are stranded, according to Rebecca, is unsurprisingly the financial implications. Those affected have been left with no choice but to fund their own accommodation and essentials, with many rapidly running out of money.
While Rebecca was thankfully able to secure an operating flight home on Saturday – at the lowest cost she was able to find, still amounting to thousands, with the support of her family – she continues to urge the government to help those who simply do not have the means to return home under the current circumstances.
Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry has echoed the public’s concerns regarding the government’s alleged proposals, criticising Dominic Raab’s plans as ‘just more of the same’.
Speaking to the BBC following Raab’s briefing, she urged, “What happens if your insurance has run out whilst you are waiting to get on a flight? What happens if your food or your medicine is running out – there aren’t any specific answers to that.”