This has been a really difficult period of time for lots of people, particularly for those who are stuck or have family abroad. Below you can find the story from one of our members, Diane, who has gone through a struggle to get their niece back home. 

This week has been agony, the sort of agony when time slows down to seconds, then speeds up on fast forward towards impossible deadlines.  As some of you may know, my 18 year old niece and boyfriend have been stranded in New Zealand. And I am not the only one.  I personally know of three more LOCAL families who have been fighting, as I have, to get their loved ones home from New Zealand, Australia and the Philippines.

Unless you have been involved in the horror of having someone abroad at this time, you have no idea what a limbo our nationals have been left in or why perhaps there is such a crisis when clearly there are planes still flying.  Was it really only Monday 23 March that Dominic Raab finally announced that all UK nationals should get themselves home?  Did he not realise that most of us have been trying to get them out unsuccessfully for weeks prior to this?

The main problems have been threefold:

  1. The speed of the coronavirus spread has led governments across the world to take more and more stringent quarantine measures. This has meant that as hubs like Singapore and Dubai closed down, nationals could go so far and no further without spending 14 days in quarantine and risking any onward travel.  Some countries were refusing foreign nationals from entering at all.
  2. In response to these measures, airlines often cancelled their scheduled flights without warning. Also, as other routes opened to facilitate transfers, they too then closed without warning, often trapping nationals who had paid thousands for onward flights only to see them cancelled and the money non-refundable.
  3. Possibly the most devastating consequence for those so far away from home was the subsequent lockdown of their host country, leaving them not only stranded but also unable to find permanent shelter as hotels and hostels closed and friends hunkered down with families to weather the storm. So where do you go for help?

While it is clear that Coronavirus has caught every government on the hop, the UK government’s response to date has, at best, been woefully inadequate.  On Mon 23 March after her second Emirates flight was cancelled, my niece went to the embassy in Auckland.  The best they could do was to provide them with a leaflet on hand washing and put them on a repatriation list. To date (29/03/20) the FCO has been unable to provide clear data of how many UK nationals are still stuck, but estimates between 500,000 and 700,000.

On Tuesday 24th March, one day after Raab’s announcement, the UK embassy in Auckland was closed completely, leaving hundreds stranded outside.  The following day, Wed 25th, the whole of New Zealand was due to go into lockdown. My niece had no accommodation; no flight; and no support.  Australia had said that they would be closing air space, having reopened it briefly, by midday of Wednesday 25th March.  The race was on, either to get her out or get some accommodation.  We did everything we could think of to get the news out: emails to media outlets, MPs, Travel agents.  Constant phone calls to the Foreign Office, but all we could get was an automated message which reiterated the information we could find on line.

Questions were raised  in the house and the case raised with the foreign office, but I had no response from Vicky Ford.  However, I had a response from Jeremy Corbyn’s office within 30 minutes of my email and a follow up email updating me on the current situation from Emily Thornberry.

Following a meeting with Dominic Raab on Thurs 26th March, Emily outlined what the FCO was currently doing ( improving phone support; pressurising countries to keep transit hubs open).  She asked for the following steps to be taken:

  • Better communication and up-to-date specific information on line and over phone.
  • Better data on scale and spread of the problem so that resources could be targeted.
  • Support to get nationals home rather than relying on commercial options. In her view there needs to be an expanded, comprehensive repatriation approach.
  • Specific support for vulnerable, young people and those with medical issues
  • Help with visa extensions, financial assistance, accommodation and travel insurance extensions
  • Interventions with airlines cancelling flights and taking the money.

In particular, Emily has asked for specific examples of problems people were having so that she could take up specific cases with the foreign office.

My niece arrived home after 4 days in transit across USA, having managed to get the requisite visa by the skin of her teeth.
Since our dramatic race to get my niece home, Raab has been forced to commit £75m towards repatriation, yet still there are UK nationals stuck, particularly in the Indian subcontinent. It is curious however, that the word-of-mouth advice is to go to the German embassies  as they are still functioning and supporting uk nationals where they can.

If you have had any problems with getting friends or relatives home, please get in touch.

Diane's Niece
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