The UK has outlined its plan to help tens of thousands of British travellers get back home amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab unveiled the repatriation airlift at a daily media briefing on Monday evening, saying “this government is working around the clock to support, advise, and to get British travellers back home.”
He said that the “unprecedented” amount of Britons stuck overseas — from backpackers to elderly couples on cruises, is in the hundreds of thousands.
Mr Raab said it would require a “team effort,” and officials are working with airlines and other governments to get people back home.
The plan, costing around £75m ($92.9m), includes:
Partnering with airlines British Airways (IAG.L), Virgin, Jet2, EasyJet ( EZJ.L), and an airline associated with VIP and corporate travel, Titan Airways, those companies will charter flights, when normal commercial ones are not available.
Raab also confirmed there will be “priority” countries where Brits are travelling from. “Under the arrangements we are putting in place, we will target flights from a range of priority countries starting this week,” he said.
Brits will have to book through a specific site and travel company, which will be made available by the Foreign Office.
Airlines will be responsible for alternative bookings “at little or no extra cost.”
The Foreign Office has now tripled the capacity of its call centres for queries from those stuck abroad.
Raab said the UK has already managed to help get 150,000 people home from Spain, 8,500 from Morocco, and 5,000 from Cyprus.
“Where commercial routes remain an option, airlines will be responsible for getting passengers home. That means offering alternative flights at little to no cost where routes have been cancelled,” he said.
“That means allowing passengers to change tickets including between carriers. So for those still in those countries where commercial flights 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.
“Where commercial flights are no longer running the government will provide financial support for special charter flights to bring UK nationals back at home.”
According to the department of health, as of 9am on Monday 30 March, a total of 134,946 people in the UK have been tested for COVID-19 and 22,141 have tested positive. Those who have died from coronavirus now is at 1,408.
Earlier today, one of Europe’s largest budget airlines, EasyJet announced that it would be grounding its entire fleet of planes due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The group confirmed in a statement on Monday 30 March that due to “the unprecedented travel restrictions imposed by governments” in response to stopping the spread of COVID-19, it will also be putting its cabin crew on a two-month leave of absence.
EasyJet also reiterated that it had worked with union Unite to “collaboratively” reach an agreement to furlough arrangements for its cabin crew. “As of 1 April 2020, the crew will be paid 80% of their average pay through the government job retention scheme while they are on two month leave of absence.”
It said that “over recent days easyJet has been helping to repatriate customers, having operated more than 650 rescue flights to date, returning home more than 45,000 customers. The last of these rescue flights were operated on Sunday 29 March. We will continue to work with government bodies to operate additional rescue flights as requested.”
The International Air Transport Association (IATA), an aviation industry trade group, said that airlines could lose between $63bn (£50bn) and $113bn in revenues as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.
A number of airlines have already collapsed or are seeking state aid amid the spread of COVID-19. For example, Flybe was pushed into administration, immediately grounding all of the airline’s flights and putting around 2,400 jobs at risk. Even major international carriers, such as Virgin Atlantic are seeking state help.
On 24 March, UK chancellor Rishi Sunak warned the aviation industry that “bespoke support” would only be provided to companies if they cannot receive the required assistance from banks and shareholders.
In a letter to industry executives, Sunak said that that the government was “prepared to enter negotiations with individual companies,” but noted that the terms would be “structured to protect taxpayers’ interests.”