Coronavirus: hundreds of UAE citizens repatriated from UK in ‘unprecedented’ effort
Flights offered to 2,000 UAE students and 150 people on medical visas, and their companions
The UAE embassy in London’s Belgravia is much quieter since the introduction of coronavirus social distancing, but that calm belies the effort by diplomatic staff to repatriate hundreds of medical patients and students.
“It has tested all of us to the limit,” the ambassador to the UK, Mansoor Abulhoul, told The National.
“This has been something that we have looked at and said it is going to be tough. We can't rest on our laurels, we can't be complacent.”
The Covid-19 pandemic, which has infected at least 750,000 people, has disrupted international travel as governments put in place restrictions to impede the spread of the disease.
In the UAE, authorities issued a call on March 17 for all of its citizens to return home as a matter of priority.
A week later, when the threat posed by the coronavirus increased, the government suspended all inbound, outbound and transit passenger flights.
The country’s embassies, and particularly those in Europe, found themselves on the front lines of co-ordinating the repatriations.
Only weeks ago, 2,000 UAE students, 150 patients and 150 people accompanying them were in the UK. Most are now home.
In all, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation has launched 39 evacuations involving 1,743 people by air and land.
Plans for another 25 evacuations are under way and will be completed in the coming days.
Even before the government’s call home for citizens, staff at the UAE embassy in London were working hard to ensure their safe return.
“There was a lot of detail that went into that planning effort,” Mr Abulhoul said. “The team were incredibly agile to deal with this situation.”
The logistical planning for flying out the 150 UAE patients required particular care given the seriousness of many of their conditions.
Dr Suhaila Qayed, director of the Dubai Health Authority office in London, was responsible for 72 patients in the UK on March 1.
Within a week, Dr Qayed repatriated half of those who were able to travel.
“It was hectic, honestly,” she said. “My phone was ringing from 6.00 in the morning until 12 at night.
“All the doctors here and all of the nurses were working to help us get our patients safely back home.”
Since then, the team at the embassy has continued to work for the return of most of the remaining patients.
Three children with some of the most serious conditions were able to leave the UK on March 28, flown out by air ambulance because they required ventilators.
Now only patients who cannot be moved for health reasons remain.
Two are critical cancer patients awaiting surgery, while four others have suppressed immune systems after recently having bone marrow transplants.
But Dr Qayed is hopeful that the repatriations of even the most seriously ill patients will be possible before the start of May, when Britain may be at the peak of its coronavirus crisis.
At that point, the UK's National Health Service will be pushed to its limits.
The work done by officials in London is already starting to bear fruit for patients who have returned home.
The first of those back in the UAE finished their two-week quarantine on March 31.
They will continue treatment with their doctors in the UAE in concert with medical teams in London to ensure they receive seamless care.
“Our team here with our team in Dubai are arranging all of that,” Dr Qayed said. "There will be communication between Dubai and London all the time."
The largest group in need of assistance to return to the UAE from the UK has been students.
Of the 2,000 registered with the embassy in London, only 24 under the remit of cultural attache Abdulla Al Kaabi remain.
Mr Al Kaabi said the liaison with students began when once UAE authorities called for their return.
The embassy had started asking about online classes for students before UK universities offered them.
When the time came for the students to leave, the Ministry of Education offered tickets home to all who chose to do so.
Universities in Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester were quick to respond to the crisis, giving the embassy more time to deal with students in other cities.
Flying most students out before commercial flights stopped arriving in the UAE was critical.
“They responded quickly and their quick response helped us a lot to focus on the other cities,” Mr Al Kaabi said.
The efforts to repatriate UAE citizens continue. A flight carrying 80 of those remaining, a dozen of them students, is to depart this week.
Of those who stay behind in the UK beyond that date, many will be carrying out duties for the government.
Students who stay will check in daily with the embassy.
Despite the efficiency of the embassy, it is essential that a close eye still be kept on the security situation in the UK.
Lt Col Dr Ahmed Al Kaabi, the police attache in London, said the embassy would increase its level of vigilance as local police focused on dealing with the effects of the pandemic.
“We have had to ensure the safety and security of Emiratis in the UK and we are in line with the fast developing picture nationally, whether it is about the pandemic or about crime," Lt Col Al Kaabi said.
"And we have had to inform everyone about what is happening in their area or their region."
The diplomatic mission is co-ordinating on other issues resulting from the coronavirus crisis.
Mr Abulhoul has been in contact with the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Emirati authorities over the fate of British nationals trying to get home from the UAE.
The UAE is also supporting efforts to fight the coronavirus in Britain.
The ExCeL London events centre, owned by Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company, is soon to open as the 4,000-bed NHS Nightingale field hospital in a matter of days.
Mr Abulhoul said he would continue to offer all necessary assistance at embassy level for the project.
“Without all of the hard work of the past and the present, I don't think we could move into the future,” he said.
“It is testament to the historical ties, the current ties and the future of the relationship.
"When it is necessary, you can see these two nations come together.”
Updated: April 1, 2020 02:06 AM