LONDON: Around 4,000 people are scheduled to travel from Pakistan to the United Kingdom this week via 12 Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flights, the British High Commissioner to Pakistan said on Sunday.
In a briefing to journalists on repatriation efforts, Dr Christian Turner said the scale of British citizens wanting to return to the UK from Pakistan is “very large” but that priority is being given to the elderly, vulnerable and those who lack support.
“We have worked very hard with the government of Pakistan and PIA to enable the departure of over 4,000 people to the UK. If you compare that to the flows of stranded Brits in most countries around the world, it is much more than what is happening from elsewhere,” Dr Turner said.
He acknowledged that there were people who wanted to get on a flight but were unsuccessful because “demand outstrips supply”.
Several Brits feel they’ve been ‘abandoned’
While 1,000 British citizens have reached the UK via special PIA flights in the past five days, scores remain anxious as their plans were plunged into uncertainty when the government of Pakistan banned commercial flights between March 21 and April 4 in efforts to curb the coronavirus spread.
On social media, several British citizens in Pakistan have said they felt “abandoned”, and shared complaints of non-availability of seats, exorbitant ticket prices and mismanagement.
At present, there are roughly 100,000 British citizens in Pakistan, of which it is estimated that 21,000 are temporary visitors from the UK. Repatriating all temporary visitors would require a complex operation involving about 100 flights.
Last week, British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said that as many as 750,000 UK citizens were stuck overseas at the start of the coronavirus outbreak, and added that the government had so far helped more than 160,000 get home from Spain, Morocco and Cyprus via commercial airlines. Till March 31, the UK had brought back just 1,400 British nationals from Wuhan and Peru on charter flights.
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 last week but had not had any contact from the UK.
On March 31, the British government announced a £75m rescue package to repatriate an estimated 300,000 British stranded abroad because of the outbreak. While the government is not subsidising fares, it has urged airlines not to overcharge and said that those who are struggling to purchase tickets can apply for “emergency loans”. It is unclear, however, how many loan requests have been successful.
Dr Turner stressed that British citizens in Pakistan who want to travel to the UK must avail commercial flights. “Commercial flights are the most effective way for Brits to get home. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced a global FCO charter operation last week; that is only a last resort when no commercial options exist. Charters will still incur costs to traveling passengers.”
Vulnerable citizens who were on the British High Commission’s list of priority travellers have expressed anger at PIA for asking passengers to physically visit its offices for payments and refusing online payments. As the threat of Covid-19 looms, this requirement sharply contradicts social distancing guidelines in plan to prevent the spread of the virus.
PIA spokesperson Abdullah Hafeez told Dawn that for all flights available till April 11, PIA is encouraging passengers not to visit its offices and to make digital payments instead. He added, however, that anxious travellers are still crowding their ticket offices.
“Only passengers booked on the British High Commission’s special flights were asked to visit the PIA office in person to collect tickets,” Hafeez said. “This was an exceptional case, as we did not have the ability to do their verification without their physical presence.”
When asked to share details of the hygiene and disinfection measures in place for PIA flights, Hafeez said there is a “strong regimen” in place. “The aircraft’s exposed surfaces are disinfected after every arrival. Tray service, newspaper and magazines have been discontinued and only packed food items are being given to passengers. Face masks and temperature checks are mandatory for all boarding passengers. 100 per cent of passengers returning to Pakistan on PIA flights are getting swab tests and isolation protocols are in place.”
Published in Dawn, April 6th, 2020