London’s internationalism probably helps explain why it has been hit hardest by Covid-19’s arrival in the UK so far. The same feature of the city’s population also means that many Londoners have found themselves stranded overseas as other countries have imposed lockdown measures. Also very much a national issue, it drew an announcement yesterday and statement from foreign secretary Dominic Raab that the government has made an arrangement with UK airlines to help bring back “hundreds of thousands of people travelling around the world”.
This followed pressure from politicians of all parties across the country to do more for Britons struggling to get home. In the capital, London Assembly Member Unmesh Desai, one of whose colleagues, Navin Shah, is stuck in India, has written to Raab, and numerous London MPs are working at full capacity to assist constituents in similar situations.
Hammersmith MP Andy Slaughter says he and his caseworkers are “dealing intensely with several dozen cases” including Londoners who have ventured very far from White City or Shepherd’s Bush. “We are not, in the main, dealing with people in European countries or capital cities. They could be in countries that are very far away and in very remote parts of those countries”.
Slaughter’s office has been assisting constituents in Peru and Honduras, in Australia and New Zealand, and in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, with some in contact two or three times a day. Others have now made it home. For the most part, those still stranded have “working email links, even if their phone communication isn’t terribly good”, Slaughter says, “but they’re also worried that, literally, the boat is going to sail or the plane is going to fly without them”.
People had gone away for all sorts of reasons, from visiting relatives to lengthy adventure holidays in “quite edgy situations”, Slaughter says, describing these as “great when everything’s going well, but can quickly turn.” He says he’s been surprised and rather impressed by the number of constituents in their sixties and seventies who have travelled to areas that are quite cut off, “but often they will have underlying medical conditions and be reliant on medication”.
In some cases, people are simply running out of money or can’t get access to what they have. Others find they have run out of welcome from their hosts. “The local authorities or guest house decides they don’t want them any more, they are thrown out on the street and have to scrabble around, perhaps in the circumstance where there’s a lockdown, to try and find other accommodation,” Slaughter says. “So you can see that things can go pretty bad pretty quickly,”
The Labour MP says the situation “appears to have taken the government here by surprise,” when it began to emerge 10 or 14 days ago as other countries brought in measures limiting opportunities to fly out from international airports. Slaughter characterises this as “part and parcel of the great volte face there was from when we were being told business will go on as usual to going into lockdown here. It’s one of the areas where the penny didn’t drop”.
Others would disagree. But what is not in dispute is that MPs all over the city are dealing with scores of cases of stranded constituents and that many other Londoners are using other channels to get the help and guidance they need.
The government’s formal travel advice is that airlines “will be responsible for getting their passengers with pre-booked tickets home” where “commercial routes remain feasible” and that “special charter flights” funded by the government “will operate in some countries to help British tourists and short term visitors and their families to return to the UK”.
They are directed to the “return to the UK” section of the foreign travel advice page to find out if the are eligible, and if the country they are in is not to be served by a special charter flight they must follow the “return to the UK” section of that country’s travel advice.
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