Calls response of the Foreign Office and Virgin Atlantic 'shambolic'
A Hammersmith woman is among hundreds of stranded Brits who are set to return home from Caribbean islands after flights were cancelled at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Retired TV producer Ceri Smith’s return flight with Virgin Atlantic from Barbados on 1 April was cancelled.
From mid-February, the 67-year-old had been holidaying with her brother in Bequia, an island similar in size to the Isle of Wight, and whose nearest airport is in Barbados, 114 miles away.
Ms Smith and other Brits in the region have struggled to make contact with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), which remarkably has relied on Facebook and Twitter to pass on information to stranded UK citizens.
She labelled Virgin’s and the FCO’s communications “shambolic”.
But to her relief, on May 23, The FCO announced three flights would leave Barbados on June 3, 4 and 5, charging each passenger £600.
It comes after weeks of negative press about the FCO’s slowness to organise repatriation flights.
“I’m out here with my brother who’s 73 and has a lung condition,” said Ms Smith, who lives off Askew Road. “It’s been such a fiasco. The communication has been really dreadful.
“I realised I’m in a privileged position here. My landlady has cut me a deal but some people have been struggling to find accommodation.
“I have not enjoyed the frustration of dealing with the Foreign Office or with Virgin.”
It started on March 27 after she got a call from Virgin saying the last flight out of Barbados would be the next day.
“But they could not guarantee seats for me and my brother,” she said. “I explained I was in Bequia and couldn’t risk travelling to Barbados, even if I could get a flight, and find myself on an island that was about to go under full lockdown and where I knew nobody.
“The guy who called me from Virgin Barbados told me he was being laid off the next day for eight weeks. And the staff they have left have been totally overwhelmed.
“I thought Richard Branson would do better than to let this happen to his brand, and while he’s thinking about flying his rocket into space.”
Ms Smith said a friend from Germany was one of 500 EU nationals who were all “seamlessly repatriated” on 11 April .
This was in stark contrast to her and other Brits’ experience of getting help from the FCO.
Ms Smith said the UK authorities’ communication with them has been “99 per cent” over social media: a Twitter account ‘UkinCaribbean’ and a Facebook page called ‘UK in Barbados and Eastern Caribbean’.
A spokesperson for the FCO said the High Commission has been in “regular contact” with Ms Smith and other stranded tourists.
She said: “It’s been shambolic… for people out here, their only port of call has been Twitter and Facebook. There’s hardly any emails or phone calls or texts.
“There were never any regular updates coming out of them until they were chased.
“My brother isn’t on social media, without me I doubt he would have been contacted at all.
“There’s a lot of people in the dark. I have been forwarding a lot of information to people who don’t have technology out here, or aren’t on social media.”
An FCO spokesperson said: “We know this is a difficult time for many British travellers abroad and our staff are working tirelessly to bring people home and support others who remain abroad. Our High Commission in Barbados has been in regular contact with Ms Smith, as well as other British travellers in the region.
“We have organised new charter flights for British travellers from Barbados with sweeper flights across several islands and encourage British travellers looking to return to the UK to check for travel advice updates and get in touch with the British High Commission in Bridgetown.”
A Virgin Atlantic spokesperson said it “reduced its flying schedule” due to a lack of demand caused by the pandemic, and that the company has been proactively trying to reach stranded customers.
Despite all of the chaos, the pandemic has caused in developed countries across the globe, many of the Caribbean islands have been relatively sheltered from the virus.
Of the larger islands that make up St Vincent and the Grenadines – the country which Bequia is part of – only “20 or 30 cases” have been recorded on each. And no virus-related deaths have happened on Bequia, which has a population of less than 6,000.
“All the other countries [in the Caribbean] have had a lockdown, but not St Vincent… They have done a good job, and they have been good on testing and tracing. They have had to be careful because there’s no ventilators on the island,” said Ms Smith
Owen Sheppard - Local Democracy Reporter