Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Paul Brand
Tens of thousands of Britons stranded abroad due to coronavirus lockdowns will be rescued after an agreement was reached between the government and commercial airlines, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has said.
Mr Raab said the government had negotiated with airlines including British Airways, Virgin, easyJet, Jet2 and Titan, to fly home "tens of thousands" of stranded British travellers.
Mr Raab said the government will provide up to £75 million in financial support to enable special charter flights to bring home stranded Britons from places where commercial routes do not exist.
Mr Raab, who was taking the lead on the government's daily Covid-19 press conference, said chartered flights from priority countries took place over the weekend and would continue this week.
Priority countries include Peru, India, South Africa, Ghana, Tunisia, China, Japan, Cuba, and Ghana.
He said an “unprecedented” number of British travellers were trying to return to the UK and "hundreds of thousands" had already been assisted by the government.
He said a Foreign Office call centre offering support to Britons abroad received 15,000 calls last Tuesday, the highest number on record - it is usually called 1,000 times a day.
“So we boosted our resources, we have redeployed people to our call centre, we’ve tripled our capacity," he said.
“Yesterday, the call centre answered 99% of calls and helped thousands of British travellers get the answers they need.”
Mr Raab said the priority on charter flights would "always be the most vulnerable" – including the elderly or those with pressing medical needs.
He said priority would also be given to countries where there are large numbers of British tourists trying to return to the UK.
“Once special charter flights have been arranged, we will promote them through the government’s travel advice and by the British embassy or High Commission in the relevant country," he said.
“British travellers who want a seat on those flights will book and pay directly through a dedicated travel management company," he added.
“We have designated £75 million to support those flights and the airlines in order to keep the costs down and affordable for those seeking to return to the UK.”
He said 150,000 UK nationals had been assisted in getting home from Spain, 8,500 from Morocco and 5,000 from Cyprus.
The announcement came amid growing pressure from Brits stranded in countries such as Vietnam, India, Laos and Panama, who have been unable to get home due to worldwide lockdowns.
“We’ve not faced challenges like this in getting people home from abroad on this scale in recent memory,” he said.
Several social media users criticised the government for its slow response to stranded Britons, with one person branding the Foreign Office a "shambles".
Another user suggested the government should feel "shame" over its failure to bring his son home from Nepal, and compared the UK to Germany - a country that claims to have repatriated more than 160,000 of its nationals.
Another user stranded in Laos, who has been appealing to the Foreign Office for help, wrote on Twitter how Germany had responded to his pleas for help quicker than the UK.
Sam Jermy told ITV News the Asian country is "going into national lockdown from Wednesday" and he's worried he will be left without any options.
He says the embassy in Laos has been "hardworking" but he feels it doesn't have a lot of "power or leverage with UK government".
While it is believed thousands of Britons are stranded abroad, several landed at Heathrow Airport on Monday morning after being repatriated from Peru by the government.
But they have complained at their "confusing and stressful" experience trying to be repatriated by the government.
Citizens stranded in Peru were reportedly given an hour to reply to an email and confirm that they would be getting on the flight.
“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 one of those returning from Peru.
Shona McKenna, who had been in South America since January 30, said: “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's friend Stacey Coogan, who had been with her in South America, said: “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.”