British citizens have said they are relieved and “glad to be home” after two repatriation flights from Peru landed at Heathrow airport on Monday morning.
They described a “scramble” to the airport in Lima following short notice and poor communication from the UK Foreign Office (FCO).
The planes touched down after the Foreign Office said it had chartered more flights from Peru, expected to arrive at Gatwick Airport on Tuesday.
“We were put on standby but we didn’t get the email until midnight and we had to be at the airport at 7am so a lot of people were asleep and never got it,” said Shona McKenna.
“We had 50 people on standby but only 12 turned up to the airport.
“The communication wasn’t great, we didn’t know when we were going to come home and when the emails came out there wasn’t a lot of time.
“The first flight, a lot of people missed it because they didn’t get the email in time.”
Ms McKenna, 33, and her friend Stacey Coogan, 30, said that citizens were given an hour to reply and confirm that they would be getting on the flight.
“If you went out to the shop and didn’t have WiFi you wouldn’t have made the plane,” said Ms Coogan. “We were lucky we got the standby email.”
The pair, from Luton, who had been in South America since January 30, said that contacting the embassy in Peru had been “confusing and stressful”.
“We didn’t know anything and were just told, ‘we’re working on it’ – that’s all,” said Ms Coogan.
“It was confusing and a bit stressful, because the first week no one could get hold of the embassy – because they all had to work from home as well – so the first week was a bit of a nightmare.
“We’re just glad to be home.”
Since the outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan, the Foreign Office has helped to bring home almost 1,400 people on specially chartered Government flights from China and Peru and 1,900 people on cruise ships from places including California, Brazil and Japan.
But other Britons returning from Lima said that difficulties with passenger lists meant couples had risked being split up due to lack of space.
“The communication has been pretty bad with the embassy – people started getting emails for their flights yesterday at 5pm, I wasn’t on the manifest [list of passengers] but my partner was,” said Danielle from Yorkshire.
“I was ringing the embassy until one in the morning, didn’t get confirmation until three in the morning and had to be at the airport at six and even then I wasn’t on it.”
Danielle, who has asthma, said the FCO had also not taken into account her own personal circumstances but that she had eventually managed to secure a seat.
Her partner Matthew added that there were “hundreds” of stranded citizens at the airport and that the situation had been “stressful” as they waited for information about their flights.
“There were lots of queues, but it was stressful and the police were tetchy at times but we’re home safe and sound now,” he said.
“You’re sat on the edge of your seat waiting for some news and there was none until the last minute and then there’s a scramble to get your bags together and get to the meeting point.”
In the city of Cusco people were told that they needed to get buses to the airport, requiring cash, but one woman – an NHS nurse – was arrested on the way to a cashpoint and spent four hours in a police cell.
“We walked five metres out of the Airb&b and we told [police] we were just going to the ATM and the supermarket but they just took us away – but it’s completely random,” she said.
“You could leave and have nothing happen. We were just a bit unlucky.”
“[Being repatriated] was relief for everyone – it was getting to the stage in Peru where you couldn’t really do anything,” added her friend, Terri Avery, 30, from Guernsey.
“It’s quite a thing to be repatriated. You file onto the plane and are just told to sit wherever,” she said.
In the last week, the Foreign Office has helped more than 4,000 people to get back from Jamaica and more than 8,500 people to get back from Morocco.
Around 5,000 Britons successfully left Bali after the British team in Indonesia worked with their counterparts to unblock a visa permissions issue.
On Monday afternoon, the Government said an announcement on efforts to repatriate Britons stranded abroad by the coronavirus crisis was expected “imminently”.