The Foreign Office’s (FCO) efforts to repatriate an estimated 1.3 million Britons, stranded overseas due to coronavirus during the early stages of the pandemic, were "too slow" and overly reliant on commercial airlift, a government committee has found.
While acknowledging the effort was a "mammoth undertaking" and one the FCO "could not realistically have anticipated or fully prepared for", a new report by the government’s Foreign Affairs committee found evidence of "inadequate and impersonal communication" by the FCO, and a reluctance to dip into the cash allocated for the operation.
A survey of those who attempted to access consular services during the pandemic found 40% of respondents were unable to contact their relevant embassies; those that did said the advice they received was often "outmoded and unhelpful".
Elsewhere, the report questions why, when £75 million was allocated to spend on repatriation, the FCO spent only £40 million. "The government’s repatriation operation was too slow and placed too much emphasis on commercial providers, in contract with other countries that acted swiftly and chartered planes," the committee’s report found.
"A small amount of chartered flights could have run alongside commercial flights in order to repatriate the most vulnerable."
Chair Tom Tugendhat added: "There are lingering questions around why the FCO did not employ all of the resources it had at its fingertips. When other nations were chartering planes home, the FCO continued to rely on commercial airlines, in a decision that can only be explained as cost-cutting. The FCO could have done more to help those stranded abroad, especially the most vulnerable."
The committee has recommended that the £35 million left over from the initial repatriation operation be set aside to mitigate a "possible second wave of Covid-19", or "ring-fenced to help repatriate Britons who have settled abroad, but need to return due to the pandemic".
It has also called for a review of why the FCO issued advice encouraging those stranded overseas to "crowdfund" their return flights. "The FCO must proactively publicise emergency loans are available for times of crisis," said the report."Additionally, the FCO must offer extensions on repayment of loans and some flexibility to those genuinely struggling to repay."
At the height of the repatriation need, those attempting to return to the UK were often given generic messages rather than bespoke, personalised advice, the committee concluded.
"Many [survey] respondents noted the communication they received from consular services lacked empathy," said the report. "Additionally, some were under the impression embassies had, in fact, closed due to a misleading automated answerphone message the FCO was unable to override."
The report, while praising the efforts of FCO staff who worked hard in challenging conditions, recommends the FCO develops contingency plans for times of crisis, explores alternative means of communicating (such as Whatsapp Business), and considers the feasibility of establishing a logging system for UK citizens abroad.
"Additionally, the FCO must make it an immediate priority to ensure answerphone messages can be altered centrally," said the committee.
Tugendhat added the pandemic was "the greatest challenge the government has faced for a generation", acknowledging the FCO faced a "uniquely complex task" it could not have prepared for.
"We’ve heard numerous examples of individual FCO staff members who went beyond what could possibly have been expected of them to help those struggling return home," he said.
"But while most staff excelled, our inquiry also found clear failings. For many of those Britons stranded, the advice they received from the FCO was confusing, inconsistent and lacking in compassion, at other times misleading and outdated, and, in the worst cases, entirely absent.
"We’ve heard stories from many vulnerable individuals stuck in difficult, and sometimes dangerous, circumstances. The lack of accurate, helpful information meant many felt forgotten and as though they had been left to fend for themselves. The FCO was at times too slow to recognise and respond to issues with their communication, and going forward must adopt a more agile and adaptable approach.
"There are lingering questions around why the FCO did not employ all of the resources it had at its fingertips. When other nations were chartering planes home, the FCO continued to rely on commercial airlines, in a decision that can only be explained as cost-cutting. With [another] £35 million available, the FCO could have done more to help those stranded abroad, especially the most vulnerable.
"While providing the option of loans for flights may have helped in the short term, many individuals and families unfortunate enough to find themselves stuck overseas were in real difficulty. Airlines were charging exorbitant ticket fees and many will struggle to repay the loans they took out in the midst of the crisis and with no other options.
"There are numerous stories of FCO staff members working tirelessly, and under immense pressure, to help Britons abroad. However, there are broader lessons that the FCO must learn and adopt at an organisational level in order to avoid repeating past mistakes."