The German government has taken the lead role in the biggest repatriation effort in peacetime, chartering 30 times more rescue flights than the UK and flying home more than 40,000 travellers from across the world, according to figures obtained by the Guardian.
As British tourists waited for details on Dominic Raab’s £75m rescue mission, the German embassy in London revealed it had now repatriated 42,000 German nationals from 60 countries on 160 charter flights over the past two weeks.
The UK, in contrast, has rescued just 1,400 British nationals from Wuhan and Peru on charter flights, including two British Airways planes that landed at Gatwick airport on Tuesday.
An estimated 300,000 Britons are thought to be stranded around the world as countries closed borders and grounded commercial flights in an effort to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.
The transport secretary said on Tuesday that as many as 750,000 UK citizens had been stuck overseas at the start of the outbreak, making it the biggest repatriation effort in peacetime. Grant Shapps said the government had so far helped more than 160,000 Britons get home from Spain, Morocco and Cyprus via commercial airlines.
The scale of the rescue task emerged as one of the charter companies hired by the German government said it had offered assistance to the UK but that the foreign office had not returned its calls.
Air Charter Service, which helped organise flights following the collapse of Thomas Cook and Monarch airlines, told the Guardian that it had been hired by France, the Netherlands, the US and Germany in the past nine days but had not had any contact from the British.
“We’ve worked with the FCO [foreign and commonwealth office] before but they are just not returning our calls,” said Matthew Purton, head of commercial aviation for Air Charter Service, adding that he was surprised the UK government had not been in touch.
Purton said his company had flown to the Philippines, Bolivia and Cuba to repatriate 4,000 Germans in the past nine days.
“What the FCO is doing now is great and you have to give them credit because they are trying to rescue some people from places which are diplomatically sensitive and where we do not have very good diplomatic relations, but that is where a diplomatic solution is called for, but we are there ready and waiting for their calls and can do anything from 19-seater planes to Airbus380s,” he said.
Raab, the foreign secretary, said on Monday the UK would charter flights where commercial options were not available.
Grant Shapps, acknowledged the efforts of Germany but said the UK had a far greater challenge on its hands with up to 750,000 stranded initially.
This compares to the 200,000 German nationals hit by the travel lockdowns, of which around 50,000 were stranded. He said that so far more than 160,000 Britons have been able to get home from Spain, Morocco and Cyprus via commercial airlines.
In India, where commercial flights have been grounded for at least a week, dozens of Britons are believed to be among more than 2,100 travellers rescued by the German embassy using specially chartered aircraft.
Chris Linford, 56, a cafe owner from Derbyshire, said he and his family were among a group of about 40 British tourists on a German flight from Delhi to Frankfurt on Friday. On Tuesday, he praised the German government for their “unbelievable” repatriation effort and accused the UK of being missing in action.
“You can’t get through to anyone at the British embassy in Delhi – we spent about £120 trying to get through to them and the last we heard was ‘be patient’.
Linford said he and his family were told to wait at the German ambassador’s residence in Delhi on Friday, where they were provided food and water before being escorted under armed guard in 12 coaches to the airport. The 1,000 passengers – most of whom were German nationals but about 250 were other EU citizens – then boarded a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt.
Linford said they were not charged for the flight as German officials said they would seek to recoup the air fare from the UK government. “Everybody was thankful of the Germans,” he said.
“It’s only us that aren’t repatriating people. We’re just incompetent. We were the only nationality left at our hostel – every other country had been flown home,” he added.
Linford said his family had spent more than £4,000 on three flights that were cancelled when India grounded all commercial flights on 24 March.
The German government has 1,000 members of staff working on the repatriation effort at its foreign office. Its embassy in London said it had chartered planes directly for 43 countries, with the remainder getting home on 17 rescue flights organised by other EU member states.
The UK ambassador in Indonesia revealed it had been offered 40 seats on a flight out of Jakarta to Frankfurt. “Our German friends are at it again,” the British embassy in Jakarta said on Twitter. “They’ve opened 40 places on Friday 3 April at 17.25” adding that the cost would be “regular economy”.