Canadians struggle to return from U.K. after unexpected COVID-19 flight cancellations

Canadians stranded in the United Kingdom are facing uncertainty around how or when they will be able to get home, and in some cases, where they will stay while waiting out the travel ban.

Travellers advised situation can change without notice: Canadian High Commissioner

Brooke Johnston had been working as an actor in London, but her production wrapped up last week. She wasn't able to get a flight back home to Ontario's Niagara Region before a travel ban imposed on Monday. (Submitted by Brooke Johnston)

Canadians stranded in the United Kingdom are facing uncertainty around how or when they will be able to get home, and in some cases, where they will stay while waiting out the travel ban.

Brooke Johnston, 42, is from Ontario's Niagara Region but had travelled to London for work. Her contract ended on Dec. 18, and she had been preparing to leave when Canada suspended all commercial and private passenger flights from Britain. 

That initial 72-hour suspension on flights from the U.K. has now been extended for two weeks until Jan. 6, as Canada tries to prevent a new variant of the novel coronavirus detected there from spreading here.

There are concerns that the new variant is significantly more contagious than other strains, though it may not be any more deadly.

Johnston said she agrees with the federal government's decision to restrict travel to protect Canadians. However, she is stressed about "not knowing when this is going to end."

The problem, Johnston said, is that her accommodation runs out soon, and parts of London and areas in the southeast of England are under stricter Tier 4 COVID-19 restrictions.

"It's a little scary because of course the hotels and Airbnb have been closed for bookings, so I have somewhere to stay until Dec. 28, but after that it's a big question mark," she said.

Reports of thousands left stranded in the U.K.

There are reports of many people left stranded in the U.K. as dozens of countries around the world imposed travel restrictions on fights from the country.

Global Affairs Canada said there are currently 11,038 Canadians registered as being in the country, but this is a voluntary registration and not all may wish to leave.

Johnston said she has a few days to find a place to stay.

"In normal times, I would check into a hotel or stay with friends, but who's gonna take me in now in the middle of the pandemic when things are raging in London? I'll be putting myself and others at risk," she said. 

"It is what it is right now, but it's really hard and stressful."

Canadian High Commissioner to the U.K. Janice Charette said staff at Canada House in London and the Global Affairs Emergency Watch and Response Centre in Ottawa have been working co-operatively this holiday season to respond to calls and email enquiries from Canadians who are travelling.

"If travel plans back to Canada have been affected by the recent measures, our best advice is that Canadians in the U.K. contact their airline and their travel insurance to discuss alternatives and/or compensation," Charette said in a statement to CBC News. "Travellers are advised that conditions on travel can change quickly and without notice."

Charette noted that alternative routings may require a recent negative PCR test before boarding and that travellers should verify with their airline when booking.

Saeed Durhan of Mississauga, Ont., had travelled to London to vacation and visit friends and family. Now he and his 15-year-old son are unable to book a flight home. (Submitted by Saeed Durhan)

Saeed Durhan, 51, was lucky enough to be able to extend his hotel stay, but it's costly.

"We've been scrambling to find a flight home since Sunday," he said. 

"We haven't found anything."

Durhan travelled from Mississauga, Ont., for vacation and to visit family, but now he can't book a flight to get him and his 15-year-old son home.

He has even tried to book a flight back to Canada through Washington D.C., but was told United Airlines will only take U.S. citizens.

Durhan said there has been no help, guidance or direction from the Canadian government or consulate office.

"I'm not looking for a free ride here. What I would like the Canadian government to do is exactly what the US government did," he said.

"They have United Airlines taking only U.S. citizens. Why can't Canada do the same thing with Air Canada? There are Air Canada planes sitting at Heathrow Airport. Why can't they do the exact same thing and say only Canadian residents can board the plane and go back home?"

On Saturday, after the CBC News story had been published, Durhan said he was able to book a flight back to Canada that departs on Monday.

Global Affairs Canada says there are no plans to offer repatriation or assisted departure flights.

In a statement to CBC News, it said it is aware of Canadians abroad seeking to return to Canada.

The federal government has advised against non-essential travel outside of Canada since March 13, 2020. 

But Global Affairs Canada says it continues to monitor the situation closely.

"The Canadian consulate basically told me I'm on my own," Durhan said. "The Canadian government is leaving its own citizens completely stranded."

About the Author

Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with more than two decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for CBC Toronto on television, radio and online. He is also a National Reporter for The World This Weekend on Radio One. Follow him on Twitter @CBCPLS.


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