Special Report: Bringing them all back home - the crisis flights through the coronavirus pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic sparked huge diplomatic and consular efforts to fly home Irish people from all corners of the globe, writes Neil Michael

Irish citizens leaving Peru during the Department of Foreign Affairs’ repatriation effort at the start of the pandemic.
Irish citizens leaving Peru during the Department of Foreign Affairs’ repatriation effort at the start of the pandemic.

If you look at a video of the standing ovation TDs gave frontline workers in the Dail on March 26, one man is noticeably missing from the government front bench.

A gap of two seats separates Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister of Health, Simon Harris, who is in turn separated by just one seat from Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe. The missing minister was Tanaiste, Simon Coveney.

Instead of sitting to the left of the Taoiseach, he was standing on his own in a back row under the digital clock, and a few seats away from stairs leading to an exit.

The fact that he wasn’t in his usual place raised a few eyebrows, if even over the possibility he appeared to have slipped in late in a debate on such a noble issue as frontline workers.

But unbeknown to observers at the time, he was on time and standing at the back because he was waiting to speak to someone who would help seal the fate of just under 100 Irish citizens trapped in Peru.

The country was under martial law at the time, and tourists faced years in jail for breaching even the most insignificant conditions of curfews in place.

Enforced by armed police and soldiers patrolling the streets of the major Peruvian towns and cities, there had already been a few reports of heavy-handed behaviour against tourists.

The country’s borders had also been shut down on March 16, and all commercial flights in and out banned.

Food in the hostels and hotels where Irish tourists were trapped was starting to have to be rationed and some tourists had started experiencing hostility from locals.

There was a fear that the situation in Peru, certainly from the point of view of the Irish citizens trapped there, was becoming volatile.

And so, at 8pm on March 26, the Tanaiste was due to speak to the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Gustavo Adolfo Meza-Cuadra Velásquez.

As he sat at the back of the Dail, he got an alert on his phone letting him know a call was ready to be put through to Minister Meza-Cuadra.

He hurriedly left, and before he had time to reach his office, the two men were patched through to each other.

In a rare insight into these kind of calls, Minister Meza-Cuadra recalled: “I was at the office.

“I received the call in between meetings.

“I clearly remember that week as being particularly busy as we were trying to adjust to a whole new reality which we could not entirely grasp yet.” 

Of the call between the two ministers, he told the Irish Examiner: “Even though matters were quite urgent around our respective responsibilities, the call with Minister Coveney was very cordial and frank.

“As I remember it, it lasted around 20 minutes.

“We quickly exchanged our views on how the pandemic was impacting our own populations, social services and institutions and how governments were working at full speed in order to articulate a coherent response to this unexpected challenge.

“Right after, Minister Coveney asked me for cooperation for completing the due formalities required for repatriating a large group of Irish tourists.

“I remember he expressed his understandable concern about the wellbeing of his citizens, and how Irish people were aware of the situation of their stranded compatriots around the world.

“He also told me the Irish increasingly value Peru as a top tourist destination, and he expected this trend to continue growing after the pandemic was controlled.” 

He added: “Immediately I offered Minister Coveney the full support of Peru, which crystallised only three days later with the return of the big majority of the stranded Irish tourists."

The call led to Ireland being given permission to take the bulk of its citizens out of the country that following Sunday, March 29.

It was also one of hundreds the Tanaiste made to help get Irish citizens back, including calls to the CEOs of airlines and his opposite numbers in other jurisdictions.

But to get to the point where the two foreign ministers were talking didn’t just take the week or so of preparation beforehand, it also relied on relationships Ireland’s diplomats had built up over the years.

At the time of the call, Ireland’s Ambassador to Chile, Paul Gleeson, was nervously pacing the floor of his dining room at his home 11,460km away in Santiago, occasionally shooing away any one of his four children as they randomly wandered in and out of the room.

He had helped set up the call with the Tanaiste days before.

Ambassador Gleeson is a friend of Geraldine Byrne Nason, Ireland’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, and he knew she had a good relationship with Minister Meza-Cuadra.

The pair had met when he was a diplomat in New York, working as Peru’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations.

She was also friends with his successor.

“So I was texting Geraldine to see if she still had any contact with (Minister Meza-Cuadra),” Ambassador Gleeson recalled.

“I knew she had a good relationship with him and when he was appointed Foreign Minister, the previous Foreign Minister in Peru became their ambassador to the United Nations, so they swapped jobs.

“Geraldine was able to get in touch with him and to tell that there was a situation ongoing in Peru and that the Tanaiste would like to talk to (Minister Meza-Cuadra) and we wanted to try and make that happen.” 

Irish citizens prepare to leave Peru as part of the repatriation effort by the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Irish citizens prepare to leave Peru as part of the repatriation effort by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

He added: “There was a lot of back and forth.

“I was talking to Geraldine by WhatsApp, she was in contact with her Peruvian opposite number and she was able to come back to me with a phone number that was going to deliver that phone call.

“We were onto the Tanaiste’s office that evening.

“He was at an event somewhere and we were able to get him to step outside and take that call.

“I don't know where he was but as his former director of policy at the Tanaiste’s office, I know how these things work.

“If something is urgent, he will step out, and make or take a call.

“In these situations, they don't need to be long and I would imagine the Peruvian Foreign Minister was up to his eyes in it.

“We have a small diplomatic system but it is well connected and it is based on good personal relationships with our colleagues in different parts of the world.” 

Added to the run-up to the call was the fact that the department’s diplomats had had to make sure they had a plane that could undertake the flight before they could get permission from the minister to land it.

They also needed to make sure they had an operation in place to get Irish citizens spread out from Lima back to the capital to actually catch the plane.

And therein lay the source of the sleepless nights for Ambassador Gleeson over the coming days.

Trapped in Chile himself with a staff of one - Deputy Head of Mission, Aislinn McCauley - he co-ordinated the next task to get a small fleet of buses to ferry Irish citizens to Lima for the Sunday flight.

One bus - or rather, “minivan” - journey to Lima took more than 30 hours, and very nearly didn’t make it.

That was from Tarapoto, in the northeast of the country and through “a lot of jungle terrain”.

No other country had tried to send a bus up there.

“We only had three citizens there but we wanted to bring everyone out,” he recalled.

They also made room for other nationalities, but that only led to problems later.

“The police who stopped the minivan about 12 hours into its journey from Tarapoto were threatening to send it back,” he said.

“There was some detail missing about the license plate.

“But also they couldn't understand why we are transporting non-Irish citizens.

“I was pacing up and down my kitchen pleading with them not to turn back the bus.

“It would have been a frightening experience for those passengers as I was trying to explain to the officers why we had other citizens on the bus.

“I was having to explain to them that this is what we do in the EU and the UK - we try to work together in emergencies to bring each other's citizens back.” 

He, his deputy and Ireland’s Honorary Consul in Peru, Eduardo Benavides, were also frantically calling up government and regional officials to make sure the bus got through police lines.

Onboard the bus from Cusco was Lesley Ann Devereux, a Business Development Coordinator for the charity Goal, from Dun Laoghaire, south County Dublin.

Because Ambassador Gleeson couldn’t physically get into Peru and our honorary consul was also under lockdown, much of the communication between the embassy and the passengers was via WhatsApp.

In addition a Spanish speaker on each bus acted as a go-between for police, the bus drivers and the passengers, few of whom actually spoke Spanish.

Sally Ann, who has fluent Spanish, volunteered to be the Spanish speaker on the Cusco bus.

“The Ambassador had asked if anyone who spoke Spanish could help coordinate with the police and the bus drivers on the day, so I volunteered,” she said.

“We all had to queue up for a couple of hours at the bus station, where a private bus had been organised for us.

“There were a number of other repatriation efforts going on at the same time, so there was a lot of waiting around.

“The Peruvian policeman coordinating it made friends with me as he didn’t speak English so I was helping him out with the lists and organising.

“There were some health workers at the bus station who took our temperatures and checked for symptoms, and after that we were on our way!

“Twenty-four hours later we arrived in Lima and were greeted by British soldiers. It was surreal.

“The airport was completely closed, so we were taking off from the military airbase in Lima. 

“We lined up outside under a marquee, while the admin procedures went on.

“Sniffer dogs did a quick check of the bags.” 

There were a number of moments when it looked like the plane she was about to get on was not actually going to take off.

“Every so often one of the soldiers would give us an update on another crisis that had been averted,” she recalled.

“It seems like the Peruvian authorities hadn’t wanted the plane to wait for us.

“Next they hadn’t wanted to let it depart because there was some change in the route from Gatwick to Heathrow.

“We all agreed that until we were up in the air there was no guarantee the repatriation would actually go ahead!” 

It did, but Ambassador Gleeson looks back and reminds himself of the view he and his diplomatic colleagues have of such situations.

“Wheels up is what we call it in foreign affairs,” he said.

“Wheels up - and you know that the wheels are in the air and they are en route and that is the big relief for us.

“Even when a plane is sitting on the tarmac you can only be 90% confident that you are there, you’ve done it, you’ve made it.

“But it's only when the wheels are up that you know you are away and you know that's great.” 

Until she boarded the plane along with others like Cork couple Andrew Cotter, from Mitchelstown, and girlfriend Maria Barry, from Conna, she would have had little idea of the efforts behind the scenes.

But by the same token, it is hard to see how diplomats forced to only deal with their citizens by WhatsApp or phone can really appreciate the fear many Irish citizens felt while they were trapped in Peru.

The Irish in Peru were mainly from Cork, Cavan, Kilkenny and Clare and in their 20s and 30s, and in cities Cusco and Lima, and abroad so far from home for the first time in their lives.

There were also some in other cities like Puno, Arequipa, and villages like Huacachina, just west of the south western city of Ica.

Although commercial flights had all but ground to a halt, some airlines were offering chartered flights.

At one stage, Irish and British embassy staff were offering a flight out through a private Colombian company, Avianca.

Andrew Cotter, aged 31, from Mitchelstown, and his girlfriend Marie Barry, 30, from Conna, arriving back in Cork Airport on March 30 after a three-day repatriation journey from Cusco, Peru to Cork, via Lima, London and Dublin.  Picture: Neil Michaels
Andrew Cotter, aged 31, from Mitchelstown, and his girlfriend Marie Barry, 30, from Conna, arriving back in Cork Airport on March 30 after a three-day repatriation journey from Cusco, Peru to Cork, via Lima, London and Dublin. Picture: Neil Michaels

Irish citizens were advised via email that the company was “considering” arranging a chartered plane from Lima to London that weekend, March 21/22.

They also said they would also put in place a connecting flight from Cusco to Lima to connect with this London flight.

However, the price was “likely” to be $3,500 one way economy class and $7,500 business class - a price people were told reflected “what is involved in negotiating permissions from the authorities”.

While some like Mr Cotter were prepared to pay for economy seats, others simply couldn’t afford the prices and everyone eventually resigned themselves to having to remain for longer in their accommodation.

At the time, there was a mandatory curfew from 8pm to 5am.

People were only allowed out on their own to the supermarket, pharmacy and bank.

However, a number of tourists started experiencing problems getting food.

In addition, a number of hostels were being raided by police and shut down, with tourists being seen by worried Irish citizens being led away to police stations.

There were also claims at the time that some police officers were seen being quite heavy-handed with tourists.

The level of suspicion about foreigners was illustrated in Mr Cotter’s hotel where medical staff arrived out of the blue to test a tourist because he had an Italian passport.

The fact that he lived in Berlin and had been traveling for months in South America didn’t matter.

Sally Ann recalled: “When they closed the borders I realised I might get stuck there.

“But when it became really serious was a week later.

“This was when there were positive cases of Covid confirmed among foreigners in another hostel.

“That accommodation was put on strict lockdown, with people confined to their rooms for 23 hours a day, unable to leave the accommodation at all, and potentially would have to stay there for up to three months.

“There was talk that breaking the lockdown measures could have incurred a jail sentence.

“At that point alarm bells started going off in everyone’s heads and we all ramped up the efforts with the Irish government to get us home.” 

In other jurisdictions, Irish diplomats faced their own challenges, although they were not always as fraught as the Peruvian situation.

The first confirmed Covid-19 case in Turkey, for example, was on March 11.

Up until that point, preparations were still underway for the country’s main St Patrick’s parade in the capital. Ankara.

Things quickly changed after the announcement of the first case and Sonya McGuinness, Ireland’s ambassador there, started to prepare Irish citizens for what was to follow.

Newlyweds Neil Cooney from Mullingar and his Australian wife, Kath, after arriving home from their honeymoon in Peru on an emergency repatriation flight in March. Neil’s dad, Nicholas, on the right, and his mother Nancy were at the airport to collect them, in their van which they had decorated in the back as a ‘honeymoon suite’ to maintain their social distance. Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin
Newlyweds Neil Cooney from Mullingar and his Australian wife, Kath, after arriving home from their honeymoon in Peru on an emergency repatriation flight in March. Neil’s dad, Nicholas, on the right, and his mother Nancy were at the airport to collect them, in their van which they had decorated in the back as a ‘honeymoon suite’ to maintain their social distance. Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

By March 14, bans were coming down on flights from certain EU countries, but not yet from Ireland.

“We saw the writing on the wall,” she recalled.

“So we went out to our people very early and quickly to say flights may be cancelled, and they started to be cancelled as we were making our calls.

"People had information quite quickly that they were able to work on and that was before things started to get a bit complicated.” 

Luckily for Ambassador McGuinness, diplomatic staff in Turkey had urged all Irish citizens living in the country to register on the Department of Foreign Affairs’ Citizens Registration page.

“We are in an earthquake zone and we did a good bit of work about eight months ago urging people to register their details,” she said.

They were asked to register “in case things go belly up”.

So, in the days before flights to and from Ireland were banned on March 16 all the diplomatic staff were in the office on the phones calling people directly, and warning them about possible problems with flights if they wanted to leave.

“Once Turkey got the first case, the shutters came down pretty quickly,” she said.

“But we had noticed that although they had banned other people's flights, some flights still continued to go out and there was a grace period.

“That was kind of our impetus to then start talking to the airlines directly.” 

Thanks to a call she had made to her opposite number in Dublin at the start of the crisis, she found out about a flight the Turkish government were sending to Dublin.

She had suggested to the Turkish ambassador Levent Murat Burhan they should keep in regular contact over the issue of flights and exchange information as and when they had any that could help either sets of citizens.

Philippa Henderson from West Cork is greeted with a virtual hug from her mother, Anita, after arriving at Dublin Airport from Peru.  Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin
Philippa Henderson from West Cork is greeted with a virtual hug from her mother, Anita, after arriving at Dublin Airport from Peru. Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

A short while later he called her and tipped her off that an empty Turkish Airlines flight was coming into Dublin on March 23 to collect Turkish students and bring them home.

She quickly put the information informally out among the Irish community so they could be ready to go at a moment’s notice.

As well as getting permission to take Irish citizens out of Turkey, she also had to quickly arrange for the plane to be allowed land in Dublin with passengers on board. “Turkish Airlines had permission to land an empty airplane into Dublin but not an aircraft with people on board,” she recalled.

“We were phoning up at midnight to Department of Justice and Department of Transport officials and Dublin Airport over the weekend.

“We wanted to give them a heads up there would be a request coming in.” 

As well as getting Irish citizens out, the flight was helpful for other reasons too. She contacted other embassies and offered them space on the plane - a favour they would later return.

“Because we knew that a flight was happening, we contacted other EU embassies and the UK here to say we can get people into Ireland, would that be useful for you?” she said.

In total, about 30 were on board, from Ireland, Sweden, Turkey, Portugal, the UK and America.

She also said that one of the other flights she helped organise involved 10 people and two cats, on what was one of the more unusual flights she had helped with.

Other requests for help that raised eyebrows included one from a member of an Irish band aboard the controversial cruise ship, the Ruby Princess.

The members of Emerald Tide had been on the ship since December.

Owen Feeney, Consul General of Ireland in Sydney, recalled: “Up to the time the consulate received an email from the crew, it was a surprise to us they were on board.

"At that stage we were helping lots of people on mainland Australia to get home to Ireland and we didn't really expect to get contacted from the crew of a cruise ship.

"The crews on the cruise ships tend to be largely Filipino and we weren't aware that there were Irish on board.

"The individual who contacted us from the cruise ship was very calm and just to be want to let us know that they were among the crew.

"At that stage we were trying to help hundreds of Irish people who are trying to get home or more recently trying to deal with the consequences of the restrictions here in Australia in terms of Irish Visa holders.

Tears of joy as Seana Polly from Downpatrick is greeted by her sister, Natasha and mother, Claire, after arriving home on an emergency repatriation flight from Peru. 	Picture: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin
Tears of joy as Seana Polly from Downpatrick is greeted by her sister, Natasha and mother, Claire, after arriving home on an emergency repatriation flight from Peru. Picture: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

"That is what we were going through at the time, we had a large volume of emails and calls and that email from the crew member did stand out as being the more unusual of the emails that we received.” 

As well as worrying about the mental welfare of the four band members and an Irish engineer on the ship, he was also worried the ship might set sail for America.

He eventually helped get the crew off in the first wave of crew disembarking from the ship that was linked to more than 600 cases of Covid-19 and 15 deaths.

Independent Cork TD Michael Collins was one of many TDs who dealt with the Department of Foreign Affairs on behalf of constituents.

He said: “I have nothing but respect for the Department of foreign affairs.

"They were unbelievable to us.

"People from all over the world wanted to come home and the communication day and night with them was just second to none.

"We had constituents’ sons and daughters in Peru, Bolivia, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, and America.

"And in every case there was no way those people were going to get home were it not for the efforts of the Department of Foreign Affairs and the embassies and consulates abroad.

"The early stages, especially in Peru, people were very scared and very worried about how they were gonna get out of where they were to get home.

"What I like about the Department of Foreign Affairs staff is - it doesn't really matter what time you ring them with a problem but they go to work.” 

Elizabeth McCullough, Director of the Consular Division at the Department of Foreign Affairs said the operation around the world to bring people back to Ireland was unprecedented.

"We don't normally repatriate people, we normally assist them to help get back if they are having problems overseas,” she said.

“This whole idea of repatriating people was part of a specific approach agreed in the context of the virus.

“It is quite a unique situation and it was decided at a relatively early stage in the Covid-19 crisis.” Her work and the work of what is now a largely expanded team at the Department of Foreign Affairs started in January, when they became aware of the situation in China.

They were aware there were a number of Irish citizens in Wuhan.

“There was a renewed effort by our embassy in Beijing and our consulates in Shanghai and Hong Kong to find out how many Irish people needed assistance,” she recalled.

“We always encourage people to register their details with us and download our Travelwise app so they can get regular travel updates.

“When it became clear this virus was a serious virus and people might want to leave while the was still an opportunity to do it, we worked very closely with like-minded partners who were in the region.

“And if I remember correctly, the first repatriations from China took place late January into February.

“There were six in total from Wuhan.

“They got out in the nick of time.” 

The next group of citizens they were dealing with shortly after were those trapped aboard various cruise ships, including the Princess Diamond, which docked of Yokohama, Japan, and the Westerdam cruise ship docked off Sihanoukville, off Cambodia.

There were a total of 15 on these ships, a number of whom contracted the virus.

Sarah McKernan from Dublin gets a hug from her father, Robert, after landing in Dublin Airport on an emergency repatriation flight from Peru.  Picture: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin
Sarah McKernan from Dublin gets a hug from her father, Robert, after landing in Dublin Airport on an emergency repatriation flight from Peru. Picture: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

“And after that the virus then began to spread quite rapidly around the world,” she said.

“So we decided we would try and assist as many people to get back to Ireland as possible and that we would try to get them on to commercial flights where we could.” 

She activated the department’s crisis centre on February 25, brought in extra staff and restructured the way her department worked, splitting it into regional teams.

Up until only very recently, the crisis centre was open seven-days-a-week, and staffed from 7am till 10pm.

It now operates 8am to 8pm five days-a-week and has full-time duty officers on-call over the weekend.

Having only taken on her role last summer, she sees what has happened as being a “baptism of fire”.

And she adds: “I am not aware of any operation like this in the past.

“This was a really unique and exceptional moment in the history of the Department.

“We haven't really had to deal with anything like this before.

"It has actually been a great example of teamwork and I say that with my hand on my heart. 

“It has been something I am very proud to have been involved in because it's been a fantastic exercise in people seeing this as being a really important thing to do for Irish people around the world.

“There was a huge level of enthusiasm and willingness by people across the department to leap in and to take on the extra work.

“It has been a very positive exercise in lots of ways.” 

Despite that though, the department has not been without criticism.

Although tunes changed as they took their seats on their flights home, there were complaints by some Irish citizens they were not given enough information.

“It is not always the case that we have the information available to us,” Elizabeth McCullough said.

“I think when there is regular engagement (people) are satisfied with the level of assistance they get.

“Obviously we are not able to do everything.

“We're not able to change public health restrictions for example.

“We were not able to conjure up solutions for people that are stuck on remote islands in far off parts of the world but I think most people are satisfied.” 

The scale of the challenges the Department of Foreign Affairs has faced over the past few months has been huge. To date, they have brought or helped bring a total of 6,347 Irish citizens home.

Compared to the first four months or so to mid-May in 2019, the number of calls have shot up. Last year, staff received 3,006 calls while this year so far, they received 18,889 calls.

Usually, the number of travel advice updates on their TravelWise app are around 130 to the mid-May period. This year so far, there have been 1,640 updates.

The number of consular cases has also increased from 741 to mid-May in 2019 to 5,357 cases created this year so far.

As to the future, Elizabeth McCullough remains cautious.

“This situation will probably go on for quite a while into the future, so we are not out of the woods yet,” she said.

“What the repercussions are from the virus for the period ahead and even more long-term are unknown as yet.

“So are still planning for the future, trying to work out what the next set of challenges might be, trying to make sure that we are as best prepared to respond to those as we can be.” 

But if there is one thing this crisis has done, it would appear to have brought the Tanaiste closer to his opposite number in Peru, especially since that March 26 phonecall.

Minister Meza-Cuadra appears to have been impressed with him, so much so he looks forward to the two sharing a pint when this pandemic ends.

“I hope sooner than later I will be able to share a Murphy’s with Minister Coveney recalling this positive episode, or better off, to share a couple of glasses of Pisco sour, made from our national drink, which I absolutely recommend to the Irish Examiner’s readers,” he said.

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