Dominic Raab has announced that the UK government was planning to charter special flights to bring back British nationals who find themselves stranded in the Covid-19 worldwide travel lockdown.
The UK foreign secretary and his counterparts from about 20 countries had held discussions with Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar over the weekend.
Raab, who led the daily briefing from Downing Street, said the UK government had struck a deal with airlines to evacuate British nationals from certain priority countries where commercial routes are non-operational.
India will be among the priority countries after Raab said that the £75-million plan would focus on countries where large numbers of British travellers find themselves stranded due to travel restrictions.
“This is the greatest global challenge in a generation. An unprecedented number of British people are trying to get home,” said Raab, the second in command to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who remains in self-isolation after testing positive for coronavirus last week.
The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) said charter flights are already up and running to Ghana and Tunisia, with India and South Africa to be added to the list this week.
“We are negotiating intensely with countries around the world to secure permissions for return flights where airspace has been closed,” the FCO said.
Once special flights have been arranged, these will be promoted through the UK government”s travel advice and by the British Embassy or High Commission in the particular country.
British travellers who want a seat on the flight will book and pay directly through a dedicated travel management company.
“This is a worrying time for many British citizens travelling abroad. We”ve already worked with airlines and governments to enable hundreds of thousands to return home on commercial flights, and we will keep as many of those options open as possible,” said Raab.
“Where commercial flights are not possible, we will build on the earlier charter flights we organised back from China, Japan, Cuba, Ghana and Peru. The arrangements agreed today will provide a clearer basis to organise special charter flights where Britons find themselves stranded. Our priority will always be the most vulnerable,” he added.
These flights will be run by British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and EasyJet, among other airlines who have signed up to the deal.
The news will come as relief to thousands of British travellers currently in India who have been petitioning the UK government to fly them out of the country, which remains under strict lockdown to control the coronavirus pandemic.
“The UK must act now using whatever means possible to get these British citizens back on UK soil,” urged an online petition on Change.Org calling to “Repatriate UK citizens stuck in India”, which garnered nearly 50,000 signatures within days.
The daily briefing on Monday came as the total number of people who have died due to the deadly virus in the UK reached 1,408, a hike of 180 over the previous day.
More than 9,000 people who have tested positive for coronavirus are being treated in hospitals across England, according to NHS England chief Sir Simon Stevens.
Meanwhile, thousands of EasyJet and Virgin Atlantic airline staff are being offered work at the new 4,000-bed NHS Nightingale Hospital being speedily built at the ExCel conference centre in East London.
Those who sign up will support nurses and clinicians at the coronavirus field hospital, the NHS said.
Virgin Atlantic said furloughed or forced leave staff who helped would be paid through the UK government”s Job Retention Scheme.
NHS England said many airline staff were first aid trained and already had security clearance. Virgin Atlantic said it had written to about 4,000 employees, while EasyJet said it had contacted 9,000 of its UK-based staff â€“ half of whom are first aid trained.
Travel restrictions and a slump in demand because of the pandemic have grounded thousands of their fleet along with other global airlines.
Earlier, Boris Johnson said the British public appeared to be obeying the restrictions set out by the government to slow the spread of the virus and hailed their efforts in a video posted on Twitter.
“Thanks to everyone who has been staying at home. By delaying the spread of the disease we can reduce the pressure on our NHS, and that”s how we hope to save many thousands of lives,” he said.