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.