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Report on FCO's Consular Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic published

28 July 2020

The Foreign Affairs Committee Report highlights the inadequate and impersonal communication by the FCO, concludes that the Government's repatriation operation was too slow and calls on the Government to review loans, particularly for those who are clearly not in a position to repay them.

The Report praises the efforts of FCO staff members, who worked hard in challenging conditions.

The Committee conducted a survey into the experiences of those attempting to access consular services during the pandemic, which has helped to inform this report.

Communication

The Committee found that many (40% of survey respondents) were unable to make contact with their embassies. Of those who did manage to contact the embassy, the advice was often outmoded and unhelpful.

Often generic messages were given in place of bespoke, personalised advice. Many respondents noted that the communication they received from consular services lacked empathy. Additionally, some were under the impression that embassies had in fact closed due to a misleading automated answerphone message that the FCO was unable to override.

This report recommends that the FCO develops contingency plans for times of crisis, explores alternative means of communicating (such as Whatsapp Business) and considers the feasibility of establishing a logging system for UK citizens abroad. Additionally, the FCO must make it an immediate priority to ensure that answerphone messages can be altered centrally.

The FCO must continue to offer clear and bespoke advice even when their services are under strain.

Repatriation

The Report concludes that the Government's repatriation operation was too slow and placed too much emphasis on commercial providers, in contrast with other countries that acted swiftly and chartered planes. A small amount of chartered flights could have run alongside commercial flights in order to repatriate the most vulnerable.
 
Additionally, the Report questions why, when the FCO was allocated £75 million to spend on repatriations, it spent only £40 million. The Committee recommends that the remaining funds should be set aside for a possible second wave of COVID-19, or ringfenced to help repatriate Britons who have settled abroad but need to return due to the pandemic.
 
The Report calls on the FCO to remove the advice to crowdfund for return flights. The FCO must proactively publicise that emergency loans are available for times of crisis, additionally, the FCO must offer extensions on repayment of loans and some flexibility to those genuinely struggling to repay.

Chair's comments

Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat MP, said:

"The coronavirus pandemic is the greatest challenge our Government has faced in a generation. The FCO was confronted with the uniquely complex task of repatriating the 1.3 million Britons stranded abroad. This was a mammoth undertaking; one that the FCO could not realistically have anticipated or fully prepared for. We’ve heard numerous examples of individual FCO staff members who went beyond what could possibly have been expected of them to help those struggling return home.

"But while most staff excelled, our inquiry also found clear failings. For many of those Britons stranded, the advice they received from the FCO was confusing, inconsistent and lacking in compassion, at other times misleading and outdated, and, in the worst cases, entirely absent.

"We’ve heard stories from many vulnerable individuals stuck in difficult, and sometimes dangerous, circumstances. The lack of accurate, helpful information meant many felt forgotten and as though they had been left to fend for themselves. The FCO was at times too slow to recognise and respond to issues with their communication, and going forward must adopt a more agile and adaptable approach.

"There are lingering questions around why the FCO did not employ all of the resources it had at its fingertips. When other nations were chartering planes home, the FCO continued to rely on commercial airlines, in a decision that can only be explained as cost-cutting. With £35 million available, the FCO could have done more to help those stranded abroad, especially the most vulnerable.

"Whilst providing the option of loans for flights may have helped in the short term, many individuals and families unfortunate enough to find themselves stuck overseas were in real difficulty. Airlines were charging exorbitant ticket fees and many will struggle to repay the loans they took out in the midst of the crisis and with no other options.

"There are numerous stories of FCO staff members working tirelessly, and under immense pressure, to help Britons abroad. However, there are broader lessons that the FCO must learn and adopt at an organisational level in order to avoid repeating past mistakes."

Further information

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