The Foreign Office has announced a government partnership with airlines to repatriate “tens of thousands” of tourists stranded overseas amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Announcing the new plan during the government’s daily coronavirus briefing on Monday, foreign secretary Dominic Raab said that he and transport secretary Grant Shapps have negotiated a “memorandum of understanding”, signed by Virgin Atlantic, easyJet, Jet2 and Titan Airways.
British Airways has also made clear that it will work with the government “in the national interest” to get people home, and other airlines are expected to join.
The government has a twin-track approach to repatriation, firstly with “airlines recognising their responsibility for transporting their passengers with pre-booked tickets home, through offering them alternatives where routes are cancelled, allowing them to change tickets, where permissible – including between carriers – and offering them the latest information and advice as the situation changes”.
Where commercial routes do not exist, the government will provide up to £75 million to enable special charter flights – operated by the airlines above and others – to fly to priority countries to bring back UK residents.
Raab said: “Where commercial flights are not possible, we will build on the earlier charter flights we organised back from China, Japan, Cuba, Ghana and Peru.
“Special charter flights for countries with no commercial routes will be prioritised according to the number of stranded British travellers and their vulnerability, including an assessment of the local health provision.
“In some places, access for flights to land and the ability to move around within the country to assemble for return flights will also be decisive factors.
“Charter flights are already up and running to Ghana and Tunisia. We will add more countries this week with the aim of bringing people back from countries such as India and South Africa where large numbers of British travellers are stuck and commercial routes are completely suspended. We are negotiating intensely with countries around the world to secure permissions for return flights where airspace has been closed.
“The government has pledged up to £75 million to pay airlines for the additional charter flights to ensure tickets are affordable.
“Once special flights have been arranged, these will be promoted through the government’s travel advice and by the British Embassy or High Commission in country.
“British travellers who want a seat on the flight will book and pay directly through a dedicated travel management company.
“British tourists stranded abroad who want to return to the UK should first check if there are commercial routes available by visiting the airline websites, FCO Travel Advice pages for the country they are in and local British Embassy social media.
“If there are no commercial options, they should visit the Travel Advice pages and sign up to alerts for their location and follow Embassy social media and email updates.
“When special return flights become available, these will be advertised by the Embassy and British nationals on Travel Advice Pages and Embassy social media and those who have registered for updates will be contacted via email. British nationals will be asked to register their interest through our booking agents CTM.”
Alastair Willson, managing director at Titan Airways, said: “As a proud British company, we stand ready to work with the government to do all we can to bring stranded British travellers home.”
Raab said he has been contacting his counterparts around the world to keep transit hubs, airports and airspace open to ensure travellers are able to return to the UK.
He said this has enabled the recent repatriation of 8,500 from Morocco, 5,000 from Cyprus, and an estimated 150,000 from Spain.
Which ? Travel editor Rory Boland said: “It is good to hear that the government’s huge repatriation effort is finally underway and will include getting stranded UK residents home, not only where commercial flights are still available but also providing charter flights where there is no commercial option.
“Those who have been stranded for weeks in increasingly difficult situations have told us that communication on the ground is still quite poor so we want to see the government do all it can to provide all the correct advice to get these people back home quickly and safely.”