A HELENSBURGH man says he and his wife felt abandoned by UK government officials after being stranded thousands of miles from home at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

Tom and Carol McDonald were just about to return home from a holiday in New Zealand when the Covid-19 crisis gripped the country in March.

Mr McDonald spoke to the Advertiser after a report by MPs - published at the end of July - slammed the government’s efforts to repatriate British citizens stranded abroad.

The conclusions of the report by Westminster’s cross-party foreign affairs committee were endorsed by Helensburgh’s MP, Brendan O’Hara, who said the UK government ­– and in particular the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) – was “asleep at the wheel” just when the country’s citizens needed them most.

Mr O’Hara said one of his Argyll and Bute constituents died while waiting to be brought home – from a condition that would have been treatable in the UK.

Mr McDonald said: “The advice early on was always to get home by commercial flights. That was it.

READ MORE: The Helensburgh couple left stranded in New Zealand as coronavirus lockdown hit

“By the time we heard about repatriation flights a lot of people had booked their way home already.

“We think that was just a way for the government to whittle down the number of people they had to bring back.

“We felt abandoned by the Foreign Office and left to our own devices.”

The McDonalds eventually returned home on April 25, almost a month after their original return date.

Tom added: “We were given a very, very strong impression that there weren’t going to be any repatriation flights.

“The message from the FCO was ‘get yourselves home at your own expense’, which we eventually did.

READ MORE: Helensburgh's carers thanks for their support during Covid-19 pandemic

“We had to travel through Los Angeles which was one of the epicentres of the virus at the time, and we both have vulnerable medical conditions, so we put ourselves at risk.

“To me the response was really slow and our government just seemed to say ‘tough’.

“Compared to other countries like Germany, it seemed like our government didn’t care, and that was a common view among most British people who were abroad at the time.

“This needs to be a lesson for the future.”

The committee’s report said the FCO’s repatriation effort was “too slow” and poorly coordinated, with around 1.3 million Britons estimated to have been stranded around the world when Covid-19 struck.

It added: “The FCO was outpaced by events leaving many seeing it as out of touch with the needs of those in difficulty. Too many UK citizens were not provided with the support that they should reasonably expect to receive.”

Mr O’Hara said: “As soon as the scale of the impact of the virus became clear, SNP MPs lobbied the UK Government to follow our neighbours – like Germany and the Netherlands – and actively organise flights to repatriate UK citizens trapped abroad.

READ MORE: Oh, no they won't: Helensburgh's 2020 pantomime cancelled over coronavirus safety fears

“In total 30 constituents and their families contacted me asking for help from the FCO. These people were left stranded across the globe including in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Peru, Nepal and Egypt and sadly, in one case, the results of this were catastrophic.

“Everyone who contacted me was shocked that the FCO would effectively abandon its citizens abroad while they watched the governments of other countries act swiftly to get their citizens home.

“Complaints were made to me about the lack of information available from embassies, especially for elderly and vulnerable constituents who were having to camp out in airports in the hope of getting a flight.

“When they did eventually act, the high cost of repatriation flights proved prohibitive to those who had already spent weeks and months booking and re-booking flights in the hope of getting home and using up all income they had in doing so.”

In a survey of more than 1,250 people, which formed part of the recent report, around 85 per cent of respondents said they were either ‘very unhappy’ or ‘somewhat unhappy’ with the UK Government’s response.

The FCO advised against all non-essential travel around the world on March 17 and six days later it issued further advice stating that all UK residents currently travelling abroad should return home.

READ MORE: Hermitage Academy publishes details of 'back to school' plans

Mr O’Hara added: “The lack of action in response shows the UK Government in a position it seems to be repeatedly found in these days: asleep at the wheel.

“There was an absence of leadership and direction from the very top of this rudderless Tory Government which impacted my constituents when they most needed help.

“Despite the herculean efforts of individual Foreign Office staff around the world, it is painfully clear to anyone watching that years of sustained funding cuts have left the UK Government unable to fulfil its basic obligations to its citizens.

“The pandemic has shown this to be as true abroad as it is at home.”

An FCO spokesperson said: “The FCO mobilised a large scale diplomatic and repatriation effort to bring home 1.3 million people in the face of the unprecedented crisis that Covid-19 presented.

“Against the background of local lockdowns and international flight bans, the team worked tirelessly to keep commercial routes open as long as possible while bringing stranded Brits home on 186 charter flights from 57 countries and territories.

“Although the immediate crisis has ended, we have retained a repatriation team for the remainder of the year and boosted investment in our consular services and crisis management to ensure we are further prepared to support Brits caught up in the pandemic.”

READ MORE: Catch up with all the latest Helensburgh and Lomond news headlines here