Vulnerable Brits stranded in Dominican Republic get last-minute rescue flight home
25 March 2020, 07:43
A British couple who feared they would be stranded in the Dominican Republic have told of their desperate struggle to get back to the UK amid global travel shut down because of the coronavirus.
David Watts, 60, who suffers from Type 2 diabetes and was down to his last day of medication, and his wife Ann, 56, landed in the Caribbean country on 14 March, ready for a relaxing 10-day holiday away from the coronavirus outbreak in the UK.
The couple, from Pinhoe, Exeter, were supposed to return home on 24 March, but when they checked the British Airways website last Wednesday they discovered their return flight had already left on that day - almost a week earlier than scheduled.
Their desperate race to get back the UK came after Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab ordered all British holidaymakers abroad to return to the UK as soon as possible to avoid being stranded.
The couple received an email from BA on Monday 16 saying: "Your flight to London on 24 March 2020 is currently due to depart as planned."
Mr and Mrs Watts contacted the airline who told them the travel agent they booked the holiday with - On the Beach - should have informed them about the change of plan.
On the Beach later admitted there had been a "miscommunication" with another travel firm and that "the information regarding their replacement inbound flight was not passed on to us."
The couple claimed On the Beach "put up smoke and mirrors for about three days" before admitting they had failed to inform the couple due to a "clerical error".
“This is an unmitigated disaster all due to a clerical error ... we've been left to rot,” Mr Watts told LBC News.
The 60-year-old, who has just one kidney and has overcome cancer on three occasions, added he was worried he would not be able to get hold of the vital medication he needs, which was close to running out.
"I might be able to pick meds up from a pharmacy, but there is a nationwide curfew and a lot of uncertainty in the country."
He said he worried about what would happen to his wife "should anything happen to me before I get home or if we are separated."
"Who is going to look after her? It's unpleasant as it is, but for a 56-year-old woman to be out here on her own with the current state of play is unthinkable."
Don’t know if it’ll help but please circulate and help us get some answers. @OntheBeachUK the liability is with you, cowardly actions. With hotels closing they have no where to go, no one has communicated otherwise. Low on medication & the highest risk. #getthewattshome @GOVUK pic.twitter.com/uOVeZVLDMk— ross watts (@rosswatts95) March 21, 2020
Hotels in the Dominican Republic were closing and the couple feared they would soon have nowhere to stay.
They had been paying for hotels out of their own pocket.
Their daughter Sasha told LBC News she feared she would not see her father again.
"It’s been a complete joke. We’ve been shoved backwards and forwards by everyone," she said.
"Dad is getting himself in a bit of a state. It's quite sad to listen to. He is panicking.
"I'm mentally preparing for the worst."
The family were given a glimmer of hope on Sunday 22 March. In a conversation seen by LBC News, a representative for On the Beach informed the couple's family "a flight had been arranged for them" and that they would be called regarding an update.
However, that flight was not confirmed until Tuesday afternoon, by which time the couple's worried son had booked them separate seats on the same flight home.
Mr and Mrs Watts have now been put on a return flight via Paris on Wednesday 25 and will be reimbursed by On the Beach for the seats their son booked.
UPDATE: We advise British people travelling abroad to return to the UK now, if commercial flights are still available.— FCO travel advice (@FCOtravel) March 23, 2020
Read our guidance here: https://t.co/z13EF5O59o#coronavirus | #COVID19 pic.twitter.com/ZZ1oQlU43o
The couple's MP, Labour's Ben Bradshaw, highlighted their ordeal to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab in the Commons on Tuesday.
The minister replied: "I will look into the case in the Dominican Republic. Of course, it is less well-travelled than some other routes which is part of the challenge, but that just means we need to re-double our efforts."
Earlier, Mr Bradshaw told LBC News: “I and my office have been doing all we can to help Ann and Dave Watts, including raising their case directly and repeatedly with the Foreign Office.
"This is a very worrying time for them and their family and the thousands of other British nationals stuck overseas and I would strongly urge the U.K. Government to follow the example of other countries and do more to bring our people home.”
The government's official advice to Brits who are stuck abroad is to return home immediately from holidays or business trips as they may not be able to return via commercial flights within days.
Their story is just one of a number of accounts of Brits who are stranded abroad due to coronavirus. There are reports of passengers trapped in foreign countries including Australia, Peru and the Philippines.
Ophelia Soboljew, 24, from near Manchester, and Beth Houghton, 23 from Great Dunmow, Essex, told LBC News they had been left stuck in Australia.
"We're pretty much stuck not knowing who to contact or what to do," Miss Houghton said.
"I'm a nurse and I'm trying to get back to the UK to help with the pandemic. There's a whole bunch of NHS workers out here," Miss Soboljew added.
A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “We recognize British tourists abroad are finding it difficult to return to the UK because of the unprecedented international travel and domestic restrictions that are being introduced around the world – often with very little or no notice.
"The FCO is working around the clock to support British travellers in this situation to allow them to come back to the UK.
"The Government is seeking to keep key transit routes open as long as possible and is in touch with international partners and the airline industry to make this happen.
"Consular staff are supporting those with urgent need while providing travel advice and support to those still abroad."
Dominic Raab had previously said: "We are strongly urging UK travellers overseas to return home now where and while there are still commercial routes to do so. Around the world, more airlines are suspending flights and more airports are closing, some without any notice.
“Where commercial routes don’t exist, our staff are working round the clock to give advice and support to UK nationals. If you are on holiday abroad the time to come home is now while you still can.”
On the Beach said in a statement: "The situation regarding Covid-19 is unprecedented and is affecting all travel providers. We would like to thank our customers for their patience at this time and ask for their continued understanding as we work to resolve individual issues in a context which is complex and challenging.
"The customers in question travelled out as planned on 14 March prior to the change in advice from FCO and holidays were continuing as normal.
"Their flights were with British Airways, booked via Gold Medal Travel, and the information regarding their replacement inbound flight was not passed on to us. We are currently investigating this miscommunication with our partners at Gold Medal.
"Our teams have frequently been in contact with both the customers and their daughter over the last few days in order to find a solution as quickly as possible, and we have been in constant contact with the British Embassy to explore all options.
"Flights have now been arranged, via Paris, and we will be reimbursing the additional flights as well as the additional hotel costs incurred.
"Our customers remain our number one priority and we are pleased we were able to find a resolution in this instance. This is a unique situation and we are working as quickly as possible to offer support and guidance to everyone affected."