Flying Home: The FCO’s consular response to the COVID-19 pandemic Contents



4.When a crisis occurs abroad, the FCO’s consular network provides the UK’s emergency response for its nationals. The FCO is responsible for the provision of travel advice, support and care; and for organising repatriation if necessary. Accordingly, in response to growing concerns around the COVID-19 pandemic, the FCO advised against all non-essential travel around the world on 17th March.4 Six days later, on the 23rd March, it issued further advice stating that all UK residents currently travelling abroad should return home.5 The FCO estimates that, at the time of issuing this advice, 1.3 million UK citizens were travelling abroad.6 The task of ensuring that all these travellers could return to the UK safely was an unprecedented challenge for the Government.

5.The UK Government made an early decision to rely on commercial flights as the main means of getting UK citizens home, and planned to rely on these commercial routes for ‘as long as possible’.7 On the 30th of March the Government announced that it would provide financial support for special charter flights to bring UK nationals back home.8 The Government designated £75 million to support those flights.9 However, it emphasised that these flights would only be available from locations where commercial flights were no longer running.10 It said that airlines would still bear responsibility for getting passengers home where commercial routes remained an option.11 When asked about the rationale for this decision, Sir Simon McDonald, Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, argued that “going commercial relieved a pressure on the British taxpayer” as it was the most cost-effective way to bring travellers back to the UK.12 However, Nigel Adams MP, Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, subsequently told us that this decision had “nothing to do with any financial constraints”.13

6.Other countries (such as France and Germany) placed more reliance on charter flights early on in the crisis and were therefore able to repatriate their citizens more quickly than the UK.14 The UK Government ran 186 charter flights to support the 1.3 million British nationals who were travelling abroad. By comparison, the German Government chartered over 260 flights during the crisis, to support around 260,000 citizens.15 The Permanent Under-Secretary acknowledged that the UK repatriation operation had “taken longer than was ideal, and longer than in some other countries”.16 He told us that:

Speed is something that absolutely is in question, and you can legitimately say that we could have been quicker, but given the numbers that have successfully come back by commercial means, which would have been extremely expensive to put on charter flights, I think that this is a defensible choice.17

As of 30th June 2020, the FCO had spent £40.5 million of the £75 million that had been allocated to support charter flights.18 It believes that this has allowed the ‘vast majority’ of UK citizens to return home.19 The Minister told us that “if we need to stand that [fund] up again, hopefully the Treasury will allow it. We have a bit more of that envelope”.20

7.A significant number of those who responded to our survey criticised the Government’s decision to rely on commercial providers, arguing that it was unrealistic to expect travellers to take commercial flights. We were told that in many countries there were very few commercial flights available and that tickets were extremely expensive. Many of our survey respondents had spent large amounts of money on commercial flights which were then cancelled at short notice. Respondents were often given credit for future flights (rather than a refund) which meant that many did not have the funds to purchase new tickets. One person told us that the FCO “seem completely out of touch [as] flights priced at many thousands of dollars [aren’t] a realistic option for people stuck in Australia with diminishing funds”.21

8.A significant number of survey respondents had found getting to airports extremely difficult. Many of those who responded were stuck in countries where all domestic travel had been banned. Those who were in remote locations or who were far away from a country’s main transport hub often couldn’t access the domestic flights or transport that would allow them to board a commercial flight home. This seemed to be a particular issue in New Zealand and the Philippines. One respondent told us that:

Just because commercial flights are operating from the Philippines it doesn’t mean people can leave here. Many people are stuck.22

Another said that:

Nothing has been mentioned about how we can reliably fly to another state without the risk of being stranded in the event of more cancellations.23

9.The scope of the Government’s repatriation efforts was also limited to British nationals who were ordinarily resident in the UK.24 This meant that British nationals who live overseas permanently did not qualify for the support available.25 Those applying for seats on repatriation flights were asked for the postcode of their UK address as part of the process of reserving a ticket. The FCO told us that this process was not “rigorously policed”,26 but that the programme “was about keeping British nationals safe if they did not have an established residence somewhere else”.27

10.We recognise the hard work of many FCO staff and diplomats who worked around the clock and did an excellent job helping UK citizens get home. However, some posts performed more effectively than others and there are areas where efforts fell short.

11.The FCO was given £75 million to help UK citizens return home. However, only £40 million of this was spent. While no one would advocate waste, these funds were allocated to rescue British citizens and the amount unspent suggests that the lifelines that many needed were available but not used. We were given no explanation as to why the remaining £35 million wasn’t used to provide a better service for those UK citizens stranded abroad. We recommend that the Government ensures remaining funds are kept aside should a second wave of COVID-19 infections see more UK citizens stuck abroad. The FCO should also consider allocating some of its remaining funds to help those British nationals who permanently reside overseas but who need to return to the UK due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

12.The Government placed too much reliance on commercial carriers at the start of the crisis. We were surprised that the Permanent Under-Secretary and the Minister gave different explanations for their Department’s decision to rely upon commercial flights. This decision was clearly made with cost saving in mind.

13.Whilst reliance on the commercial system may have been the most cost effective and convenient way to help the majority of travellers return to the UK, for some people this was not a practical solution. This included travellers who were vulnerable, those in the ‘high risk’ category and those who were travelling in countries with strict lockdown rules and thus were unable to access the commercial flights available. By running a small number of chartered repatriation flights in parallel to the commercial options the FCO could have successfully brought home the travellers in the most vulnerable situations.

14.The FCO advised UK citizens to make use of commercial flights, but they did not do enough to help people access those flights. The Government needs to offer support that factors in the reality that for many, just because commercial flights are running, it doesn’t necessarily mean that those flights are accessible. The FCO should do more to provide advice to those staying in remote areas, and to provide options to enable those people to travel to the airport. In future periods of crisis, the FCO should ensure that’s travel advice pages include advice on: safe local transport routes, local lockdown rules and airport accommodation. The FCO should also set out a plan to make this advice available and easily accessible for those without internet access.


15.Many of those stuck abroad spoke about the spiralling costs of accommodation, food and other essentials. Some of those who responded to our survey were running out of essential medication, whilst others were struggling to access basic supplies. The Foreign Secretary expressed sympathy for those who were running out of money while abroad but said that “given the scale” the Foreign Office could not provide a direct subsidy or grant to individuals.28 He said that, in extremis, the FCO would offer temporary loans to facilitate people getting back home. This was in line with existing FCO policy on emergency loans for repatriation.29 The Foreign Office reaffirmed its offer of an emergency loan as a last resort when it announced the special charter flights on 30 March 2020.30 Many of those who responded to our survey were not aware that these loans were available. We were told that (as of the 30th June) 2,272 loans had been given out.31 This figure seems low, considering that 1.3 million UK citizens were estimated to be travelling abroad at the start of the crisis.32

16.A significant number of those who responded to our survey had not been able to access FCO loans, despite being in financial difficulty. The FCO had often advised survey respondents to rely on family and friends or to try crowdfunding, rather than offering loans. One respondent told us that:

Upon ringing up and explaining that I was running out of funds and accommodation due to a lack of money caused by cancelled flights, their response was simply ‘Try to borrow money from your relatives’, and no financial loan or support of any kind could be offered despite media and FCO reports to the contrary.33

The Foreign Office told us that this advice was historical and based on the ‘last resort’ loans that the FCO had offered prior to the crisis.34 We were told that the Foreign Office had previously collated a list of different ways in which individuals could access funding short of asking for a loan and that this advice included crowdfunding as an option.35 This pre-existing list was repurposed as advice for those seeking loans as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.36 The FCO told us that the crowdfunding advice has since been removed.37 However, a number of our survey respondents received this crowdfunding advice before its removal. We received a significant number of complaints about this advice.

17.Some other respondents had been offered loans to pay for tickets but did not take them as they felt that they could not afford to keep up with repayments. One respondent told us that:

I understand that emergency loans are available but at the end of the day we will still have to pay off a massive debt… what about the people who simply cannot afford the commercial flights home and cannot risk taking an emergency loan out.38

The FCO loans were interest free and repayable within six months.39 However, given the economic uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic, many respondents were extremely worried about committing to pay back their loans within this timeframe. These worries were heightened for some respondents by the FCO’s inflexible stance, with some travellers being told that, if their loan wasn’t paid back within six months then their details would be passed to debt collectors. When asked about this the Minister of State told us that these were “not bad terms for taking out a loan”40 and that “you can take a horse to water but you cannot make it drink”.41 The Minister did however acknowledge that the Government may have to offer extensions to enable people to pay back their loans.42

18.Whilst a relatively large financial package was developed for those suffering from COVID-19 related financial hardship in the UK, little was done to provide help for those UK citizens stuck abroad. The FCO had emergency loans available, but both take up and awareness were low. The FCO also made clear that it was only willing to offer these loans as a last resort, preferring to advise people to borrow from friends and family and, early on in the crisis, asking people to crowdfund their way home. Whilst the crowdfunding advice was eventually removed from the FCO’s website, we are disappointed that the FCO ever considered this acceptable advice to give to a British Citizen seeking help. We recommend that the Foreign Office commits to removing its advice on Crowdfunding from all future guidance on loans. It should also proactively publicise that emergency loans are available in times of crisis.

19.Given the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people may need to seek extensions to the FCO’s travel loans. The FCO has advised that there may be some flexibility in repayment timetables for those genuinely committed to repaying, but this fact has not been adequately communicated to the public. While loans must of course be repaid, it is undesirable that people were deterred from taking out loans by the FCO’s warnings that their details would be passed to debt collectors after six months. People needed to be made aware that more flexibility was available. We recommend that the FCO commits to offering loan extensions where people are in genuine financial difficulty. The FCO should also make it clear that, in current circumstances, there may be some flexibility afforded to those who are genuinely struggling to repay.

4 Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Travel Advice against all non-essential travel: Foreign Secretary’s statement, 17 March 2020, accessed 7th July 2020

5 Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Foreign Secretary advises all British travellers to return to the UK now, 23 March 2020 , accessed 6th July 2020

6 Q 165

7 Q 53

8 Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Foreign Secretary’s statement on coronavirus (COVID-19), 30 March 2020, accessed 9th July 2020

9 Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Foreign Secretary’s statement on coronavirus (COVID-19), 30 March 2020, accessed 9th July 2020

10 Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Foreign Secretary’s statement on coronavirus (COVID-19), 30 March 2020, accessed 9th July 2020

11 Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Foreign Secretary’s statement on coronavirus (COVID-19), 30 March 2020, accessed 9th July 2020

12 Q 61

13 Q 161

14 Q 62

15 Correspondence from Minister of State Nigel Adams MP, regarding FCO consular response to COVID-19, 16th July 2020.

16 Q 61

17 Q 62

18 Q 160

19 Q 160

20 Q 151

21 Survey response, UK citizen in Australia

22 Survey response, UK citizen in the Philippines

23 Survey response, UK citizen in Australia

24 Q 170

25 Q 170

26 Q 170

27 Q 170

28 HC Deb, 24 March 2020, 232 [Commons Chamber]

29 Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Financial assistance abroad, 22 May 2020, accessed 9 June 2020 d

30 Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Foreign Secretary’s statement on coronavirus (COVID-19), 30 March 2020, accessed 9th July 2020

31 Q 188

32 Q 165

33 Survey response, UK citizen in Australia

34 Q 210

35 Q 210

36 Q 210

37 Q 210

38 Survey Response, UK citizen in Australia

39 Q 190

40 Q 190

41 Q 191

42 Q 211

Published: 28 July 2020