Covid-19: Britons caught in India lockdown demand more help

Josh Halliday and Lisa O'Carroll
Photograph: Narinder Nanu/AFP via Getty Images

The families of six British coronavirus patients in an Indian hospital have demanded London step up its efforts to move them to safer accommodation as hundreds of UK citizens were placed under strict lockdown with little prospect of a way home.

Tourists criticised the government’s repatriation effort as “non-existent” as an extraordinary curfew came into force across India on Wednesday, confining 1.3 billion people to their homes and grounding all international and domestic flights.

The families of six elderly Britons who tested positive for coronavirus were “shocked” at the lack of action by the Foreign Office and urged officials to move their relations from the “unsanitary and dangerous” conditions in a hospital in Kerala.

In an open letter to Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, they wrote: “Day by day we are increasingly concerned for their physical and mental wellbeing, while our anxiety has been heightened by your department’s lack of initiative.

“Precious little action has been taken to improve their plight and we were shocked to be informed last Friday that our point of contact would not be responding to emails or phone calls over the weekend.”

The six – Janet Leigh, 83, Nairn Lawson, 76, Elizabeth Lawson, 75, Steven Hancock, 61, Ann Williams, 61, and Jane Jackson, 63 – have been in the hospital for five nights in miserable conditions, their relatives said.

A Foreign Office spokesman said: “Our staff are supporting a group of British people currently undergoing medical treatment in India and are in touch with the local health authorities.”

Related: Coronavirus: the week the world shut down

Boris Johnson told the Commons on Wednesday that a “massive, massive” repatriation effort was under way to rescue the estimated 1 million Britons currently overseas. He signalled that diplomatic flights were being arranged where commercial carriers could not operate.

The developments come as the first rescue plane arrived in Peru as part of the mission to repatriate more than 600 British and Irish travellers. Peru is one of several countries to tighten its travel restrictions in response to the coronavirus pandemic, with the government closing all airports and insisting only government-organised flights, flying out of military airbases, will be permitted to leave the country.

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Stranded travellers in India said they had been pleading with UK embassies for help for days. An NHS doctor is among those stuck in India. Vaishnavi Kashyap, 27, said her return flights were cancelled and the situation had worsened since the lockdown announced by the prime minister, Narendra Modi, on Tuesday.

She said her colleagues had requested her to return to work as soon as possible to help deal with a huge influx of coronavirus patients. “I can see my team at the Royal London hospital already struggling,” she said.

“I am trying my best to get back to the UK so I can help my NHS colleagues and would really appreciate and want maximum support from the UK government to repatriate us to the UK in a timely manner.”

Another of those stranded is a 77-year-old British man in hospital in Goa. Ivor Gunton, from Bristol, had been in hospital since the end of February after undergoing a life-saving colon operation.

British travellers follow an embassy employee before heading to the airport for a flight home from Lima, the Peruvian capital, on Wednesday. Photograph: Martín Mejía/AP

He was due to return to the UK this week via air ambulance to continue his treatment at Bristol Royal Infirmary. In the past 48 hours Gunton has been told he has contracted an infection and possible sepsis, his family said.

His wife, Geraldine Davies, 72, flew back from India last week on the understanding that her husband would follow on an air ambulance three days later.

However, Indian authorities revoked permission for it to land, meaning he is stuck in hospital without family or friends. Davies said she had tried to contact the high commission in Delhi. “It’s the most horrendous situation and I really do need to get him home.”

Chris Linford, 56, from Hayfield in Derbyshire, said he and his wife, 53, and sister-in-law, 60, could not find anywhere to stay in Delhi as all the hotels were full. Indian police found them places in a backpackers’ lodge.

Linford, a cafe owner, said he had seen Russian, German, Bulgarian and Italian citizens all repatriated by their governments in the last 48 hours but the UK embassy had been “no help whatsoever”. “In this hostel, every other country has left,” he said. “We’re totally stuck: we can’t leave Delhi, we can’t stay in Delhi. All the Foreign Office say is: ‘Be patient’. It’s ridiculous.”

A Foreign Office spokeswoman said its staff were working tirelessly to help the group. She said its officials had “secured fast-tracked testing, raised the issue of standards with the most senior ministers in the region, and continue to lobby for their choice of hospital to make them as comfortable as possible.”

She added: “In addition UK ministers have personally raised the matter with the chief minister there and we will continue to do everything we can to support them. We recognise this is a difficult time for many Brits. We are prioritising those who are vulnerable and are supporting them to return to the UK when they can.”