Four days ago, Jessica Chiodo made the snap decision to cut short a holiday in New Zealand and return to the UK to join her NHS colleagues on the front lines of the fight against the coronavirus.
Chiodo, a 24-year-old anaesthetic and recovery practitioner at a hospital in north-west England, booked a seat on the first flight back to the UK from Christchurch that she could find. But on Tuesday, while she waited at an airport hostel, she was informed that she wouldn’t be allowed to board. Dubai, which she was due to travel through, was no longer allowing transit passengers because of the outbreak.
Chiodo frantically searched the internet for an alternative flight. Nothing.
Now she’s one of more than 21,000 British citizens stranded in New Zealand as the country goes into a nationwide lockdown. Several of those travellers told BuzzFeed News they’re desperate to get back to their homes and families in the UK and have been receiving only patchy information from airlines, travel agents, and the British government.
“The [UK] government response has been lax and communication poor,” Chiodo said, communicating by WhatsApp on Wednesday morning as New Zealand prepared to implement strict measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus similar to those that have been adopted in Britain.
Although it has fewer confirmed cases than many other countries — around 200 — New Zealand has moved swiftly to a high level of containment. From Wednesday morning UK time, the country was ordered to stay at home and travel was strictly curtailed.
Foreign tourists are still allowed to leave the country, but for many that is proving to be practically impossible. Because New Zealand is so far away, flights back to Europe and the UK need to travel through transit hubs in Australia, Asia, and North America, but those destinations, also in lockdown, are now not letting transit passengers pass through.
On Wednesday, the British High Commission in New Zealand wrote to UK nationals stranded there that the Foreign Office has arranged a one-off Singapore Airlines flight back to London, most likely later this week. But, at this stage, that will only be open to existing Singapore Airlines ticket holders and there are thousands more people waiting to get out.
According to New Zealand immigration records, there are more than 21,000 British citizens on temporary visas in the country. The travellers who spoke to BuzzFeed News called on the British government to urgently arrange more flights to repatriate them.
The travellers say there has been chaos and confusion in recent days as people rushed to find flights out while also suddenly preparing to be confined in isolation in New Zealand. As the lockdown deadline approached, many were urgently trying to find accommodation where they could shelter safely while they wait to get out.
In Christchurch, Chiodo had booked a dormitory bed in a backpacker hostel for two nights while she waited for her flight. The hostel told her she would have to leave because she didn’t have a private room. “Essentially I was homeless and the advice was to ring a hotline that I couldn’t get through to,” she said.
Through her family in the UK, she was put in touch with someone near Auckland, New Zealand’s biggest city, who offered her a room to stay in. She rushed onto a domestic flight to get there before the lockdown began.
By Wednesday morning, she was safely at her family contact’s house in Auckland, but with no idea about how long she would have to stay there. Chiodo was due back at work at her hospital in north-west England on April 6. “I’m in a specialised area which I’m highly trained for. Other people can’t do my job,” she said.
“There are hundreds of key workers [stuck in New Zealand] wanting to get home and help the Covid effort,” Chiodo added.
Josh Rennie, 29, from York, was on a backpacker bus tour of the South Island late last week when it became clear that the New Zealand government was tightening measures to stop the spread of coronavirus. The tour operator cut the trip short and headed for the nearest airport. Rennie and other passengers, mostly British and European, got on their phones and tried to bring forward their flights.
Like Chiodo, he booked a seat on an Emirates flight from Christchurch to Manchester, travelling through Australia and Dubai, and was told he couldn’t board because of new restrictions by the transit airports. He is now in an Airbnb rental in Auckland with several others from the backpacker tour, trying to get back to his family in Britain as quickly as he can.
Sam Williams, from North Wales, went to New Zealand for two weeks to visit his brother who’d been living there for the past few years. They were meant to travel back to the UK together on the weekend but their flights were cancelled, with no refund, and so they had to urgently find a place to stay indefinitely in Auckland.
“We all showed up at the British consulate here in Auckland on Tuesday morning and they had completely closed,” Williams told BuzzFeed News. “No way of contacting them except on the phones, which have ridiculous hold times. They are putting out occasional tweets which are very vague and saying things like, ‘We are working on ways of getting you home.’"
“Meanwhile, we are all spending money we don’t have on places to stay and additional food,” he said.
Rennie told BuzzFeed News the travellers had been getting vague and inconsistent information on the ground, and were being passed between airlines, the British High Commission and travel agents, with nobody seeming to have a plan to repatriate them. “You’d call the consulate and they’d have no idea,” he said. “Their information was out of date.”
“A lot of people just felt abandoned,” he added.
There was anger when the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab issued a public statement on Monday telling all British nationals abroad to get home while they still could. By then, the travellers said, they were already stuck in New Zealand.
British tourists stuck in New Zealand have organised several WhatsApp groups that they’re using to exchange information and support each other. Rennie said the people who are stranded include NHS workers who should be helping with the fight against COVID-19, elderly travellers, and some who need to get back to their children.
New Zealand’s government has assured British tourists that their visas will be extended if they’re stuck in the country indefinitely.
The UK Foreign Office said it was “working around the clock” to provide support to those who are stranded.
In an interview with Radio New Zealand on Wednesday, the UK’s High Commissioner to New Zealand, Laura Clarke, said: “Our top priority is to get people who want to get home home. We’re doing everything we can, working across our global network to do that, but it’s an incredibly complex picture and there are no easy fixes.”
Clarke said the High Commission has set up a new system for keeping British nationals in New Zealand up to date and urged everyone there to register. On its first day, more than 4,000 people had signed up and she expected that number to climb, she told Radio New Zealand.
She urged British citizens there to find accommodation “even if it’s just for a few days” where they could isolate safely while the UK government works on a solution. For those who are short of money and can’t get any from friends and family, loans would be available to tide them over.
So far, the government has been focusing on trying to get citizens home on commercial flights and is negotiating with airlines and transit destinations to persuade them to reopen routes. In contrast, the German government is organising flights to repatriate its citizens stuck in New Zealand.