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


20.The COVID-19 pandemic has placed unprecedented pressure on the FCO’s communications network. We were told that FCO call centres usually receive an average of 1,000 calls a day,43 whereas at the height of the crisis they received 14,000 calls.44 This vast increase in call volumes resulted in long wait times for callers and left many UK citizens unable to access the help and advice they needed. It is therefore no surprise that the most common complaint from respondents to our survey was levelled at the quality and quantity of the FCO’s communications. Forty percent of those surveyed told us that they had been unable to get in contact with an embassy, consulate or high commission. Of those who had managed to contact an embassy, fifty-nine percent said that they had found it difficult or very difficult to do so.

21.The Foreign Secretary acknowledged that it had been too difficult for some travellers to contact the FCO and said that the department needed to “rapidly reduce” the time it takes to answer calls.45 The Foreign Office had to do much work to scale up call centre operations and had not previously undertaken crisis planning for an event of this scale.46 The Permanent Under-Secretary, Sir Simon McDonald, acknowledged that there had been “real problems” with communications early in the crisis.47 He told us that:

At the beginning our call centres, in particular, were not as we would have wished them to be … Many calls were not getting through and so people could be hanging on the phone for a long time … It took us a couple of weeks to get it right.48

However, the FCO says that its service improved over the course of the pandemic.49 It says that it successfully tripled the capacity of its call centres by enlisting a commercial partner and redeploying staff.50 Four hundred extra call handlers were brought in at the height of the crisis.51 Since the 30th March the pickup rate for all calls has been ninety-eight percent or better.52

22.When survey respondents did manage to get in touch with the FCO, they often found that the advice they received was outdated or unhelpful. One respondent told us that:

We sought advice from consular services at every stage of booking return travel, and at every turn the advice was either misinformed or outdated. This included transit windows, conditions of transit, routes available and airports that are open. As a result, we were unable to complete our return travel plans before the lockdown, and we remain stuck.53

Another told us that they received “more information from the British news outlets than from the embassy”.54

23.The FCO told us that there had been a concerted effort to disseminate “accurate information as quickly as possible to as large a number of people as possible”.55 The crisis instigated a shift away from communicating via individual telephone calls and towards conducting more communication via social media.56 The Permanent Under-Secretary felt that this shift had been successful.57 He did, however, acknowledge that the FCO’s social media channels needed to be more widely publicised in the future.58

24.As a result of this strategy, travellers were often told to follow social media or to look at the Government’s website for updates and so were not given any bespoke advice or information. There was a feeling amongst respondents that this generic information was unhelpful, many respondents felt that they had unique difficulties in getting back to the UK and unique problems which needed to be better addressed (such as medical problems, difficulty travelling from remote locations and a lack of funds). Many respondents said that the only information they received was the details of the commercial flights available and that this was often unhelpful if they couldn’t travel to the airport to access these flights or couldn’t afford to pay for these flights. The Permanent Under-Secretary acknowledged that the FCO needed to re-examine the balance between centralisation and tailoring of its advice.59

25.Some survey respondents also felt that there was a lack of information on what would happen when they returned to the UK. Those based in Scotland were particularly concerned about how they were going to get home: most flights were going to Heathrow and it wasn’t made clear whether passengers could easily travel onwards. One respondent told us that:

We can find no information as to what will happen to us on arrival back in Scotland, we both live in Argyll but are having to fly to Edinburgh. How do we reach home from there? We can’t ask friends to collect us as most are near or over 70. Can we hire a car? Are we to be put into quarantine? … We are very concerned and cannot find any information.60

26.Many of those who responded to our survey had joined informal WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook groups to gather and share information. We were told that these groups often proved more informative than official channels. However, embassies seemed reluctant to engage with these groups. For example, one respondent told us that:

[The] Embassy refused to engage with the groups of citizens who were finding each other on WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, despite this being a ready-made pathway to get information to several hundred people at once.61

27.A large number of survey respondents felt that there was a lack of compassion and understanding from FCO and embassy staff. One respondent told us that the lack of empathy, information and support, left them “feeling alienated and left to die”.62 Whilst another told us that:

There was a complete lack of empathy, and the prevailing mentality was one of “computer says no”. If it didn’t fit with whatever the brief in front of them said, they didn’t seem able to comprehend [the issues] in front of them.63

When asked about these comments FCO officials told us that all consular staff receive training in handling distressed customers and that “[the] objective is to offer empathetic and supportive consular assistance, and when we fell short of that we sought to address it as quickly as possible”.64 In order to do this, the department implemented mystery customer shopping to make sure that staff were following best practice.65 It said that it also:

Spoke to all their posts [about this]… particularly if we heard they had put out-of-office messages on their emails, which may not have struck the right tone and reflected the extent to which they were working.66

28.Many UK citizens stuck abroad were under the impression that embassies had closed, and that consular staff were uncontactable.67 However, the FCO said that this was not the case and that consular teams were simply working from home.68 We were told that this misunderstanding occurred because of an automated answerphone message69. Jennifer Anderson, Director of Consular Services at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, told us that:

In many countries around the world when they [UK citizens] rang our embassy or consulate the opening message would have been, “This embassy is closed.” That is an automated system. We were not able to override it.70

The FCO told us that it has now initiated a project to try to change that system and enable answerphone messaging to be controlled centrally.71

29.There were real communication problems, particularly early on in the crisis–many people’s calls were not answered and many were left waiting on the phone for long periods of time. The FCO successfully scaled up their operation during the crisis, but this was a slow process which left many unable to access help when they needed it the most. Whilst this was an unprecedented challenge, the FCO was too slow to react. For future reference, the department needs to be more agile to respond rapidly to emerging crises. We recommend that the FCO develops contingency plans to ensure it can scale up its response more quickly should a situation like this occur again in the future. Products such as WhatsApp Business offer the ability to communicate at speed and at scale with a self-selecting audience. The FCO should be exploring alternatives to the current offer.

30.The FCO may have been able to communicate more effectively and proactively had it established a logging system to record the location and contact details of UK citizens abroad. This could have proved particularly helpful for those without access to the internet. The FCO’s LOCATE database was discontinued due to disuse in 2013, but the COVID-19 pandemic may have increased the public’s willingness to share this kind of information during times of crisis. The FCO should look into the feasibility of establishing a logging system to help identify UK citizens abroad in times of crisis.

31.The move to using social media for mass communications was partially successful. However, accessing online information was particularly difficult for elderly people and those with certain disabilities. The FCO placed too much reliance on this generic advice and this approach disadvantaged those with medical conditions and those stuck in remote areas, as they were unable to access advice tailored to their current circumstances. Many people were not treated with the empathy and compassion that they should rightly expect. It’s disappointing that the FCO fell so short of expectations in this area. Whilst we welcome the shift to communicating general messages via social media, this should not be at the expense of offering bespoke communication and advice, often this kind of information is vital.

32.The failure of the FCO to provide clear advice on what would happen on arrival to the UK caused many travellers a great deal of unnecessary anxiety. The FCO should give clear advice on the situation on the ground in the UK, this would go a long way to alleviate the worries of travellers returning to the UK.

33.Automated answerphone messages told travellers around the world that our embassies and consulates were closed. It is extraordinary that the FCO had no control over the answerphone messages of its own embassies. This oversight prevented many from accessing the advice and support that they needed. The FCO should make it an immediate priority to ensure that these answerphone messages can be controlled centrally.

34.We know that many FCO staff went above and beyond to deliver admirable service in extremely difficult circumstances. However, there were areas where efforts fell short. By not adapting quickly to changing circumstances the FCO appeared out of touch with the needs of the general public. Too many UK citizens were not provided with the support that they should reasonably expect to receive.

43 Q 59

44 Q 202

45 Oral Evidence taken on the 19th March 2020, HC 253, Q6

46 Q 213

47 Q 52

48 Q 52

49 Q 59

50 Q 52

51 Q 198

52 Q 52

53 Survey response, UK citizen in New Zealand

54 Survey response, UK citizen in Peru

55 Q 58

56 Q 53

57 Q 53

58 Q 53

59 Q 58

60 Survey respondent, UK citizen in New Zealand

61 Survey respondent, UK citizen in Peru

62 Survey respondent, UK citizen in Pakistan

63 Survey respondent, UK citizen in Jordan

64 Q 197

65 Q 197

66 Q 202

67 Q 202

68 Q 202

69 Q 202

70 Q 202

71 Q 202

Published: 28 July 2020