Below is the text of the speech made by Lisa Nandy, the Labour MP for Wigan, in the House of Commons on 29 April 2020.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I confirm that it is as sunny as always in our neck of the woods.
I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement and for the weekly briefings that have allowed us to work together over recent weeks to bring some very vulnerable people home. In that spirit, I turn to a number of issues that his statement did not address, so that we can begin to resolve those, too.
I am deeply concerned that, weeks after Britons were advised to return home by the Government, there is still no accurate assessment of who is stranded and where. On Monday, the Foreign Office came up with a figure of 57,500, yet I have been told repeatedly that there can be no accurate assessment because, although some embassies record those who approach them for help, others do not. We do need to know who is stranded and where, so will the Minister now ensure that his Department now counts and publishes those statistics, so that we can bring those numbers down rapidly?
I was glad to hear that the numbers returned on charter flights are up to 19,000, on 93 flights, and I again place on the record my thanks to our diplomats, embassies and consular staff, but this is still frustratingly slow by comparison with countries such as Germany, which by early April had repatriated 60,000 citizens on 240 charter flights. By chartering 20 times the number of flights, Germany was able to bring its citizens home weeks ago—I place on the record my thanks to Germany and other countries that offered spare places on their flights to stranded Britons—and I am sure the Minister understands why people are upset and frustrated that their Government have not done the same.
I know that the Government were keen to reduce costs, but this reliance on commercial flights has left far too many British people at the mercy of cancelled flights, airline strikes, extortionate prices, domestic lockdowns and chaotic booking systems, so can the Minister commit today to rapidly scaling up the number of charter flights? It is not clear to me what the barrier still is. Ninety per cent. of the country’s commercial fleet is grounded. The RAF stands ready to help. Other countries have the same problems as we do, and in recent weeks I have spoken to many global leaders who say that there is a willingness to work together internationally to open airspace and to keep the transit hubs operating. He is doing his best, but this is unlike the problems that the Government have had with testing or PPE; we have the capacity to do more, and we must.
Many people on those charter flights told me that they are being charged up to £1,000 a ticket, so it would be helpful to understand where the £75 million that the Foreign Secretary announced has gone. Has it been spent and, if so, what on? After the Foreign Office website this week suggested that Britons in New Zealand might be better off staying put until the crisis is over, can the Minister commit that all British people who need it will be not just helped, as he suggested, but repatriated, and that the cost will be no barrier to bringing our citizens home?
I also suggested to the Minister last week that it be made easier to apply for emergency loans and that people be allowed to claim universal credit from overseas. He gave me a very enthusiastic response. Can he update the House on progress with that?
Can the Minister tell us what support is being provided to non-UK nationals, many of whom have lived and worked in Britain for decades? Many with whom I am in touch are extremely vulnerable, and others are NHS workers who are desperate to get back to the frontline, but some of them have been told that they are at the back of the queue, while others have been told to contact other countries’ embassies for help. We were recently shamed by the treatment of those who made Britain their home and have lived and worked here for decades, and we must not allow it to happen again. I hope he will take this opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to those non-UK nationals and guarantee them the same rights to return home.
Finally, I would like to ask the Minister about the mixed messages that those returning home are getting. At the weekend, a Government source told The Telegraph that a 14-day quarantine period would be introduced. When the Foreign Secretary was asked, he simply said, “I don’t know.” Yesterday, the Transport Secretary wrote to MPs to tell us that targeted screening measures had been carried out at UK airports but that those have now been stopped. That is really worrying. There are people entering the UK from countries where infection rates are rising, access to healthcare is limited and preventive measures are non-existent. They are travelling back to their families on public transport. This is surely not sensible.
We have discussed that several times. It is frustratingly one of the areas where we have been unable to make progress, and the UK is now a major outlier on this. South Korea, the Netherlands, Greece, Lithuania and Singapore all have self-isolation requirements in place. We must have clear advice for those returning to the UK, with a quarantine period and testing on return to limit the spread of the virus. Can the Minister commit to that today, and if he cannot, will he take it away and ensure that it is acted on? As always, I am ready, happy and willing to offer assistance and support where I can.