Repatriation of thousands of stranded Brits likely to take more than two weeks, warns expert
The rescue effort to bring home thousands of Britons stranded abroad due to the coronavirus lockdown is likely to take more than two weeks, a repatriation expert has warned.
Matt Purton, head of commercial aviation at the Air Charter Service (ACS), has worked with governments all over the world since the Covid-19 crisis began, helping around 7,000 people get home to their countries of origin.
He has welcomed the UK's plans to repatriate Brits currently trapped abroad, but said the operation was one of the most complex ever conducted by a peacetime government and was likely to take weeks.
He also said Britain was 10 days behind other countries such as Germany, which has already brought home 10,000 German nationals.
It is estimated that between 50-75,000 UK citizens are stuck in more than 50 countries, with many of them unable to leave because flights have been cancelled due to lockdown measures.
They include hundreds of people from the Black Country who are trying to get home from India and Pakistan, some of whom have serious health conditions and have been unable to get hold of medication.
Early on in the crisis ACS charted two A380 airbus flights out of Wuhan, repatriating 300 people to countries including the UK.
And in recent days the firm worked with US State Department to get 250 people out of India, an operation which took five days to put together and involved getting an airport re-opened.
Mr Purton has worked in aviation for 20 years.
He previously helped to fly more than 12,000 people out of Libya during the Arab Spring in 2011-12, and has worked with the MoD to take troops into Afghanistan.
He told the Express & Star that the British Government's repatriation operation "would be difficult in a normal peace time situation".
"We are about 10 days behind, so now you have to factor in the closing of borders, the quarantine requirements of air crew and the difficulty in obtaining aeroplanes," he said.
"If you look at countries that are effectively closed, such as India where a very strict lockdown is in place, then it means restarting an airport that has been shut down.
"There is no ground staff to handle the plane and no air traffic control, and on top of that everything has to be handled on a diplomatic level, which takes time.
"This would be difficult if it was happening in one or two locations, but to have it globally from say, 50 different countries, it is a major challenge.
"Realistically this will take a week to put together – providing everything runs smoothly. You are looking at a minimum of two weeks to get these British people back home."
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced on Monday that Britain was working with a number of airlines to fly people back home as quickly as possible.
It came after the Government was put under increasing pressure to commit to helping those who had been unable to travel back to the UK, after the spread of Covid-19 caused borders to close and thousands of flights to be grounded.
The Foreign Office has set aside £75 million to charter flights from areas where commercial routes are no longer running, but according to Mr Purton some serious challenges lie ahead.
He said there were a number of logistical issues with long haul flights, with pilots needing 15-20 hours rest time on the ground and some nations refusing to allow planes to travel in their airspace.
In an attempt to get around this problem, ACS is using a plane based in Cairo for flights from India to the US, which flies into India then back to Egypt, before heading to the States with a different crew on board.
"These logistical issues are clearly a problem for UK carriers, and add to the challenge of bringing home the large number of people requiring help," he said.
"The Government is using its network well and it is good to see Dominic Raab getting involved personally, but it will take time.
"We are a long way behind other countries such as Germany, and it is going to be very difficult."
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