Political spotlight: UK citizens stranded abroad
As the rest of us get used to staying at home, for hundreds of thousands of UK citizens left stranded abroad, the challenge has been in getting home at all
I’m feeling pretty tired,” David MacLeod says, shrugging off his backpack and placing it down on the pavement outside a deserted Waverley train station in Edinburgh.
“It’s been a long journey. I feel happy – although I do feel a wee bit sad to be away from Cambodia,” he says, looking down Princes Street on what should have been a busy Saturday afternoon.
“Everything over there was open like normal,” he says. “That’s why I’m finding it so strange here.”
It had been 24 hours since MacLeod left Phnom Penh, but his journey home had really begun 12 days earlier.
Like hundreds of thousands of UK citizens who happened to be working abroad, travelling or on holiday when coronavirus became a global pandemic, MacLeod found himself caught between countries in ever tightening states of emergency as things were changing from moment to moment.
After nearly a fortnight of stress, three cancelled flights costing his employer over £5,000 and an unbelievable act of kindness from a stranger, MacLeod has made it home.
But as Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told MPs recently, there could be around 300,000 people still stuck in foreign countries with ever diminishing options of getting home.
We are talking about hundreds of thousands of people travelling around the world" - Dominic Raab
And while France, Germany and other countries have organised hundreds of repatriation flights for citizens, the UK’s approach has left people feeling stranded, angry and scared.
On March 30, Raab finally announced the UK Government’s plans to help repatriate stranded Brits.
The government pledged £75m to charter special flights to bring home UK nationals from countries where commercial flights are unavailable, with BA, Virgin and Easyjet among the airlines working with the government.
Raab said an “unprecedented” number of UK travellers were trying to get home, “from young backpackers to retired couples on cruises”.
“We are talking about hundreds of thousands of people travelling around the world,” he said.
Where commercial routes do not exist, government financial support will enable special charter flights – operated by the partner airlines and others – to fly to priority countries to bring back UK residents.
Raab said priority would be given to the most vulnerable, including the elderly or those with pressing medical needs, and also to countries where there are large numbers of British tourists trying to return to the UK.
He added: “For those stranded, or for families nervously waiting news and wanting to see their loved ones return home, we are doing everything we can.
“We’re working intensively round the clock with all of our partner countries and governments around the world to keep open the airports, the ports and the flights to bring people home.”
However, the government’s repatriation plans stop short of helping everyone who is struggling to get back home to the UK.
Under the new arrangement, airlines would be responsible for getting stranded passengers home where commercial routes remain an option.
Raab said in countries where commercial flights are still in operation, the instruction is still for British citizens to buy tickets home “as soon as possible”.
“Where commercial routes remain an option, airlines will be responsible for getting passengers home,” he said.
“That means offering alternative flights at little to no cost where routes have been cancelled.”
He added: “So for those still in those countries where commercial options are still available: don’t wait. Don’t run the risk of getting stranded.
“The airlines are standing by to help you. Please book your tickets as soon as possible.”
However, for tens of thousands of people around the world who are desperate to get back home, it isn’t as simple as just booking onto a new flight and getting home.
A couple in their mid-60s from Dumfries told Holyrood of an ordeal getting home from Portugal, having had flights with the airline Jet2 cancelled on short notice as the airline stopped servicing the country entirely.
One of the couple has multiple sclerosis. Fearing being stranded in Portugal without a supply of crucial medication, they managed to get a flight back to the UK only by turning up to Faro airport and waiting for a flight which had spare seats. They managed to book themselves on a last-minute flight with their original airline Jet2, but had to pay over the odds for the tickets.
And the SNP MP Stewart McDonald highlighted the case of a constituent who faced paying “just shy of” £7,000 to get family home from Pakistan.
McDonald said that airlines are “practically extorting people” and urged the government to do more to help. The SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford wrote to Raab demanding he implement a full programme of repatriation.
Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry has also criticised the repatriation plans as “just more of the same” and called for “a fresh, comprehensive and fully funded strategy to bring our British nationals home”.
A lot of the British people are running out of options. ATMs are running out of cash
And MacLeod, who went to great extremes to get himself home, worries for the people he left behind in Cambodia.
“People have nothing out there,” he says.
“A lot of the British people are running out of options. ATMs are running out of cash. Food is going to go shortly.”
“We’re going to need to get them all home.”
MacLeod, aged 38, works for a small aquaculture company called ScotVax, based in Kyleakin on the Isle of Skye. For the most part, he works in Australia, where he acts as the business development manager for the company.
His boss, George Nisbett, coordinated and paid for MacLeod’s journey home.
“George, my boss, is the saviour,” MacLeod says.
“I cannot believe what he has done for me. I wouldn’t be standing here today, in this city, without George.”
The other hero of MacLeod’s story is a man called Jerry Lewis, a teacher who was on holiday with his family in Cambodia.
Lewis, who declined to speak to Holyrood, chartered a flight home for over 100 UK citizens and organised their evacuation via a Facebook page set up by stranded Brits.
This was the flight that MacLeod had arrived back in the UK on, eventually, after nearly a fortnight of struggles with airlines and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
People were completely scunnered”
It began, for MacLeod, on the 10th March, when he boarded his flight to London. At this time there were six confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Scotland and around 50 in Australia. It wouldn’t be until 17 March that the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) would advise against non-essential travel.
He chose to book the flights with a layover of a few days in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. In January he’d been hospitalised for suspected deep vein thrombosis following a long-haul flight to Australia on New Year’s Day and so he thought it wise to break up the journey.
After a couple of days in Cambodia things seemed to escalate. The Australian PM announced strict rules on travel to Australia.
Fearing a total ban on entries (something that would happen five days later) and realising there would be no manager in Australia to help maintain business, MacLeod contacted his boss and volunteered to go back and stay in Australia.
He booked the next flight back, and it’s here that things went wrong.
“I turned up at the airport and queued in,” MacLeod recalls.
“I was booked on two different airlines, not one. I went to check in and the guy said to me at the check-in desk, ‘What’s happening with your bag?’
“I said, ‘Well I’ll pick it up and go through,’ and he said, ‘You’ll be quarantined for 14 days in Singapore.’”
MacLeod and around 10 other passengers decided not to take that flight.
Feeling it was going to be impossible to get back into Australia, which was about two weeks ahead of the UK in terms of COVID-19 response, he and Nisbett decided the priority was to get home.
MacLeod went to the UK Embassy in Phnom Penh to seek advice. It was running on a skeletal staff as the UK resident staff had already gone home. Brits in Cambodia have complained that the embassy was not returning calls and emails.
He got a meeting and was advised to book on to one of several remaining commercial flights.
When he and Nisbett looked, they saw flights on sale in excess of £1,200. Nisbett says he saw one on-the-day option at around £6,000 one way.
MacLeod had booked a flight with Emirates, which was cancelled. Then one with Cathay Pacific .“That’s flight number three,” MacLeod says.
To top it off, only travel insurance taken out before 20 January would cover costs relating to COVID-19.
Feeling like the walls were closing in on him, he became desperate for advice, which was when he discovered the Facebook group and discovered Lewis’s unbelievable plan to get Brits home via a privately chartered flight.
“I was suspicious,” MacLeod says.
“We needed proof, but there was no proof from the embassy.”
He and hundreds of others weighed up the risk. It would cost another £1000 or so. But, in the end, those who could afford it went for it.
“People were completely scunnered,” MacLeod says.
“Most people are really annoyed with the British Government, with the embassy. The embassy there did nothing for us.
“You were basically told ‘go away, look after yourself’.”
The FCO confirmed the flight was real after most people had purchased tickets.
Meanwhile a German evacuation flight left Phnom Penh on 29 March and was half empty. The Guardian reports that a German charter company tried to offer assistance to Brits but the FCO didn’t return its call.
From where he stands now, MacLeod says Lewis deserves a medal for getting so many Brits home.
“He’s a schoolteacher with kids, and he just wanted to bring them home and help people,” he says.