Up to one million British travellers have been told to return home immediately as more airlines plan to cease flights amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab today advised all tourists or short-stay travellers to return to the UK as soon as possible, with further closures to air routes expected within the next 48 hours.
The announcement marked a drastic escalation of Foreign Office guidelines issued last week which advised against all but essential international travel for 30 days.
It comes as Boris Johnson banned gatherings of more than two people and ordered the closure of all shops selling non-essential goods as well as playgrounds and churches in dramatic measures announced this evening.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said that all UK citizens who live here but remain out the country should head back as soon as possible, as airlines cease flights around the glob
Travellers gather outside he airport in Moscow, Russia amid the growing coronavirus crisis
In a statement today, Mr Raab said: ‘We are strongly urging UK travellers overseas to return home now where and while there are still commercial routes to do so.
‘Around the world, more airlines are suspending flights and more airports are closing, some without any notice.
‘Where commercial routes don’t exist, our staff are working round the clock to give advice and support to UK nationals.
‘If you are on holiday abroad the time to come home is now while you still can.’
The Foreign Office said all British travellers should contact their tour operator or airline now to arrange a commercial flight if they want to return home.
The advice applies to Britons travelling aboard rather than those who live overseas.
The government also said it ‘is working with airlines to keep routes open and is calling for international action to keep air routes open for a sufficient period of time to enable international travellers to return on commercial flights.’
Travellers in masks get ready too take a charter flight coordinated by the U.S. embassy at La Aurora airport in Guatemala City
Travellers wait for a flight at La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City, Guatemala
Passengers wear face masks as they arrive at Vnukovo International Airport in Moscow, Russia
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps added: ‘This is a very difficult time for British citizens travelling overseas, or those with families and loved ones abroad.
‘We’re in close contact with airlines, who are working tirelessly to ensure British citizens travelling overseas can safely return to the UK.
‘We are also working closely with other government departments, including the FCO to ensure airlines are able to operate to bring people back home.’
Some Britons who have been stuck abroad claimed on social media they had been trying to contact the British Embassy in order to return home for days only to be told to ‘check with the airline’.
Jordan Harris, who arrived at London Heathrow today after nine days stranded in Sri Lanka, said: ‘It’s alright Dominic Raab saying “get home whilst you still can” but I’ve just spent nine days in Sri Lanka trying to get the British Embassy to give us any advice other than “check with the airline”‘.
Passengers wears face masks after arriving at Hong Kong airport on March 23
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps added: ‘We’re in close contact with airlines, who are working tirelessly to ensure British citizens travelling overseas can safely return to the UK’
Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry has said she will seek an urgent meeting to ask for a government repatriation programme for up to one million Britons who are still stuck abroad.
Last week, Mr Raab told the foreign affairs committee he didn’t know for sure how many Britons were still abroad, but believed it could be between 300,000 and one million.
Citizens have reported being stranded in New Zealand, Peru, Spain and Morocco after nationwide lockdowns were put in place amid the growing pandemic, which has infected some 348,000 people globally.
Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel, told The Times: ‘While it’s right British travellers are being urged to return to the UK, the reality is there are thousands of UK residents stranded in dozens of different destinations with no means to get back.
‘The government must improve its communication and provide British citizens fearful of being stranded abroad with useful advice.
‘Where scheduled services have been withdrawn, it should leave no stone unturned to get these people on flights home.’
Two women wear face masks and plastic gloves as they wait for a flight at Vnukovo International Airport today
A traveller plays her violin prior to boarding a flight at La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City
A woman types a text message on her phone as she stands outside the Vnukovo International Airport
A WhatsApp group of more than 300 people claimed the British embassy had been ‘appalling’ throughout the crisis, the Guardian reported.
Some 400 Britons are set to be repatriated from Peru this week, however, after Mr Raab announced he had gained permission for a flight to leave the country for the UK.
Gearóid McKendrick, 28, from Galway, had climbed up Machu Picchu without phone signal when Peru announced a nationwide lockdown which left him stranded in South America.
‘It was not until we woke up in the hostel the next morning that we heard the lockdown had been announced and we had until midnight to get out of the country,’ the IT worker told the Irish Times.
He attempted to contact Air Canada, who he was due to fly home from Columbia with after months of backpacking, but he said he hasn’t been able to make contact with the airline.
Speaking from his Cusco hotel room, Mr McKendrick explained he also hasn’t been able to speak to his travel insurance company.
‘I’ve had no response from them either so I am kind of at a loss at what to do,’ he said.
British tourists who were aboard the cruise ship Braemar arrive back in UK from Cuba at Heathrow Airport in London last Thursday
Travellers wear surgical masks as they arrived at London Heathrow airport amid the coronavirus crisis in March
Amelia Mills, whose younger brother is also struck in Peru, said ‘at least there is a commitment from Raab to do something’ after it was announced the Foreign Secretary had secured permission for a UK flight to leave Peru ‘early next week’.
In a tweet on Saturday, Mr Raab said: ‘I spoke to my counterpart in Peru today, Gustavo Meza-Cuadra, and we committed to work together in the coming days, so Britons in Peru and Peruvian nationals in UK can return home, amidst the challenges of tackling Covid-19.’
Marc Wilson, 33, has also accused the British embassy of being ‘no help’ after he became stranded in Guatemala due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Mr Wilson, from Southampton, told the BBC he is unable to leave his accommodation and roads have been closed after his return flight to the UK was cancelled.
‘I would like to get back to the UK immediately… the embassy in Guatemala has been zero help,’ he said.
‘They have not replied to any emails of mine and they are publishing their plans to try and get us out too late for anyone outside of Guatemala City to join. There has been no advice on what is best to do.’
The number of fatalities in Britain rose by 54 to 335 today – the second biggest daily rise yet.
This evening, Mr Johnson ordered the closure of all shops selling non-essential goods as well as playgrounds and churches as he plunged the UK into a coronavirus lockdown this evening.
Gatherings of more than two people will be banned in the most dramatic curbs ever seen in Britain in peacetime, as the government goes all out to stop the spread of the killer disease.
In an address to the nation from Downing Street, Mr Johnson said weddings, baptisms and other social events must be cancelled to stop the NHS collapsing under the strain – although funerals can go ahead.
In an announcement today, Mr Raab said: ‘We are strongly urging UK travellers overseas to return home now where and while there are still commercial routes to do so’
People must only go out for essential supplies, medical help, or to travel to work if unavoidable. Going out for exercise will be allowed once a day, but parks will be patrolled to make sure there is no abuse of the rules.
Mr Johnson said his message to the public was simple: ‘You must stay at home.’
Police will have powers to fine those who do not fall into line, and disperse any public gatherings.
The premier was finally forced into the draconian move amid fury that many people are still flouting ‘social distancing’ guidance, with parks and Tube trains in London – regarded as the engine of the UK outbreak – still busy.
‘Though huge numbers are complying – and I thank you all – the time has now come for us all to do more,’ Mr Johnson said.
‘From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home.
‘Because the critical thing we must do is stop the disease spreading between households.’