British travellers in the Philippines have appealed to the UK government to send repatriation flights amid reports of tourists being forced to sleep on the streets after being thrown out of their hotels during a countrywide coronavirus lockdown.
Hundreds of Brits are believed to be trapped in curfewed cities or remote locations, including popular holiday islands that have weak healthcare systems and lack the facilities to deal with the virus which is now sweeping through the Southeast Asian nation.
Many tourists have reported being denied boarding on emergency Philippine government flights back to the capital, Manila, because they do not have tickets for onward international destinations, which are now all but impossible to find.
The unprecedented travel chaos has been reflected in the growing frustration of Teodoro Locsin Jr, the normally outspoken foreign secretary, on his Twitter feed.
“Met EU CDA [charge d’affaires] Thomas Wiersing who delivered the bad news that foreign tourists are sleeping in open air w/o shelter or roof over their heads because their hotels kicked out once their bookings end, even if they fail to book domestic flights out. Blacklist these hotels,” he said on Tuesday.
He continued to vent at local governments who were not allowing foreigners to board the so-called “sweeper” flights to take them closer to international airports, questioning if officials were “taking drugs?”
He added: “Foreign ambassadors: please call me if there are f--k ups getting your nationals out.”
But getting to Manila or Clark international airports is only the first part of a logistical nightmare for tourists as most international commercial flights out of the Philippines are grounded and major transit routes blocked.
According to Mr Locsin, the Russians, Poles and Germans are among several countries sending aircraft to help repatriate citizens in need.
Trapped British tourists have created Facebook pages and taken to social media to appeal for the UK government to do the same.
Paige Whittle, 23, from Solihull, told the Telegraph she was trapped on Siargao, a tiny island known as the surfing capital of the Philippines, with four other British travellers, all of them despairing about what to do.
“It’s at a point now where we need the government to either say stay where you are, it’s safer there than trying to get back through other countries or we’re going to send a flight out to try and help get you home,” she said.
The group had been stranded after domestic flights were grounded and they were not allowed to board a government sweeper flight because were unable to rebook rapidly disappearing onward international flights.
“My friends that did manage to book onwards travel either managed to make it home after spending thousands of pounds on flights or others were trapped sleeping on cardboard outside Clark airport for hours as they wouldn’t let them stay inside,” she said.
Ms Whittle and her friends are currently holed up in an AirBnB with only one of the group permitted to pass through police roadblocks to buy provisions.
They fear that escaping to Manila without a ticket home could leave them in a worse predicament as hotels close, forcing them to sleep on the streets.
“People in Cebu or Manila are hysterical because they have spent thousands and thousands on flights that are just getting cancelled,” she said.
“ In a WhatsApp group for stranded Brits, one person said they got to Dubai, had all of their flight tickets taken off them and they have all been locked inside the airport and can’t catch onward flights. We don’t want to risk that happening to us.”
While she and her friends are safe for now, they are running out of money and also anxious that there are no healthcare facilities within easy reach.
“The thing that is scaring us the most is that this island has an outbreak and we’re all stranded in the middle of nowhere and we can’t get any help,” she said.
Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, has supported tourists’ calls for government-backed flights. “The government cannot keep passing the buck to others, especially when it comes to repatriation. Yes, it’s difficult. Yes, it’s expensive, but that is the nature of the crisis that we face,” she said in parliament.
The British embassy in Manila has posted advice to tourists on its Twitter feed.
A spokesperson said that the embassy team was working around the clock to keep flight routes open, had already helped over 200 British nationals to return to the UK, and urged travellers to contact them.
“We know this is a real concern for visitors to the Philippines where commercial routes have been fragmented for several days and are diminishing, causing distress and disruption for some travellers trying to get home,” said the spokesperson.
“Due to the complexity of individual cases, rapidly changing restrictions and the unprecedented demand we haven’t been able to respond to enquires as quickly as we - or you - would like.”