There has been progress with repatriating people left stranded overseas, but it appears to have been uneven so far
Thousands of Londoners are still stranded overseas due to coronavirus travel restrictions, despite the government saying a week ago it was increasing the number of special flights to bring Britons home.
Members of Parliament and the London Assembly contacted by On London are reporting uneven progress with the repatriation of constituents, with new cases coming to their attention even as older ones are resolved, and a particular shortage of help for people stuck in South Asian countries.
Brent & Harrow AM Navin Shah, who flew in to Heathrow from Mumbai yesterday morning, having been forced to stay there for two weeks longer than he’d intended, understands there could still be as many as 30,000 Britons trying to get back from India, of whom around half could be Londoners, while his Labour AM colleague Murad Qureshi thinks there could be “a few thousand” Britons, many of them Londoners, trying to get home from Bangladesh.
Harrow West MP Gareth Thomas says his office is dealing with over 40 cases of constituents trapped abroad, the largest number being in India and Pakistan. Westminster North MP Karen Buck says she and her staff are dealing with “up to 20” constituents in various locations around the world. Her Labour colleague Andy Slaughter, MP for Hammersmith, says his caseload continues to be in the dozens as it was a fortnight ago.
Those marooned in India could largely residents of Ealing, where many Londoners of Punjabi descent live, or Harrow, where substantial numbers are of Gujarati heritage. The last census found that around half of Bangladeshi Britons live in London, with a particularly strong representation in Tower Hamlets.
While in India, Shah, who represents the Brent & Harrow Assembly seat, had expressed impatience via Twitter with what he regarded as an inadequate response from the Foreign Office to the plight of himself and many others there. He returned to London on a Virgin Airways flight chartered by the UK government, which cost he and his wife £600 each.
Speaking to On London today, the AM said it is not clear if, how or when he and others catching such flights can be wholly or partially refunded, pointing out that for some returning Britons such a sum might be beyond their means. He added that he and others who had originally bought return tickets with different airlines do not know if they will be reimbursed. Shah, together with fellow Labour AM Unmesh Desai, is seeking greater clarity about how the £75 million the UK government announced would be available to help Britons stranded abroad is being spent.
Shah described having to queue outside at Mumbai airport for two hours with his wife, who has a medical condition that would put her at high risk should she contract the coronavirus. He said he had informed the UK and local Indian authorities about this, but that staff at the airport, where social distancing guidance went largely unobserved, had no knowledge of it, meaning he and his wife had to negotiate a seating position on the plane that kept her as far away from other passengers as possible.
Qureshi has been pressing for more help for Londoners trying to get home from Bangladesh, believing they have been overlooked by the UK government. His estimate of the number of Britons who might be stuck there is based on the number of regular flights between the two countries that have been cancelled.
Most of those stranded are likely to be in and around the city of Sylhet in the north-east of Bangladesh. In normal circumstances there are direct flights between Sylhet and Heathrow. Qureshi says he has written to foreign secretary Dominic Raab and the British High Commission in the Bangladesh capital Dhaka seeking more help, including UK government-sponsored flights into Sylhet, though he stresses that for Britons staying with relatives in rural villages the hardest part of the journey home will be getting from to the Bangladeshi city from outlying areas.
Slaughter said that while the problems of Londoners and other Britons in some countries, such as Peru, have been largely addressed, those in others have been neglected. He regards the government as taking “a firefighting approach rather than a methodical one”.