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

Conclusions and recommendations


1.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. (Paragraph 10)

2.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. (Paragraph 11)

3.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. (Paragraph 12)

4.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. (Paragraph 13)

5.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. 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. (Paragraph 14)

6.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. (Paragraph 18)

7.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. (Paragraph 19)


8.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. (Paragraph 29)

9.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. (Paragraph 30)

10.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. (Paragraph 31)

11.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. (Paragraph 32)

12.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. (Paragraph 33)

13.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. (Paragraph 34)

Published: 28 July 2020