A Very English Experience at The Foreign & Commonwealth Office! - Sharm El Sheikh

One of our clients is an elderly man, who suffers with Emphysema, and is partially dependent on Oxygen. He is also dependent on a wheelchair for mobility.  His family, with his consent, decided to to take him to Egypt for that holiday of a lifetime!  Regretably, it will be an experience that he will not forget.  There were many issues connected to this family's holiday, not least of which was being transferred into a hotel which apears not to be suitable or adapted for the needs of the less able.

During his stay at this hotel, his wheelchair became damaged, and it was necessary to borrow a chair from the hotel.  At the conclusion of his holiday, his family where told that they would not be able to use the chair for transfer to the airport, and as there were only 2 wheelchairs at Sharm el Sheikh airport, it would be unlikely that he would have the use of any chair at that location.  No further assistance or suggestions were offered to the family, other than he could wait outside the airport, in searing temperatures, in the hope that a wheelchair would become free!

The family were faced with the prospect of having to physically assist their Father into the transfer bus, and place him onto a baggage trolley to take him through the airport.  In view of this potentially undignified spectacle, we decided to assist the family.

Our first port of call was obviously the tour operator.  We were unable to get through, so at 08.30 on 13/7/08 a message was left advising of our involvement, and requesting urgent assistance for this family.

At 08.33 on  13/7/08, we spoke to the Family and advised them of our actions and re-assuring them that we would remain in contact throughout the day.

After several hours, and bearing in mind that Egypt is 2 hours ahead of UK time, we decided to call the FCO Response Team in London.

At 10.43 on 13/7/08 we spoke to the team, explained our role, explained the difficulties being faced by the family, and setting out our concerns that in extreme heat, coupled with a serious medical condition, this gentleman could suffer a collapse which could result in an extended stay in Egypt.  It was simple, what was required was some local assistance to 'bang heads together'.

A discussion then took place as to the meaning of the expression 'bang heads together' - I simply pointed out that its ordinary English colloquial meaning should be applied, and whilst discussions on semantics were always interesting, we should concentrate on the issues affecting this man.  I was then asked 'What do you want us to do about this?'

It reminded me of a similar conversation in 2007, where, following a desperate call from some parents, I sought the assistance of the same office, for 2 British Soldiers on leave from active service in Bulgaria, who were being physically threatened by a local gang.  Again, the Response Team asked me the question, 'What do you want us to do about this?' - in fact, in that case, there appeared to be no sense of urgency (service personnel were to be treated no differently to other British Citizens), with the recommendation that the Embassy in Sofia be contacted (this had been tried to no avail).  Eventually, the Response team agreed that they would contact the soldiers, and provide them with the assistance they needed.

With regard to the Egyptian problem, I explained that clearly some intercession was required, simply to arrange for a wheelchair.  It was suggested that they could do this through the local hospital, the tour operator or their travel insurance!  With hours to go before their departure, these routes were slow and impractical, they needed help now!  I advised that if necessary I would escalate the publicity on this issue - not unreasonable when you consider the potential implications of this man's condition!  The official then suggested that they speak to the local consular official or the consul in Cairo.  Telephone numbers were provided, and I was told that Sunday was a normal day of the week in Egypt; I advised that I would call on behalf of the family!

At 10.58 on 13/7/08 I called the consular official in Sharm el Sheikh - it was the incorrect number!

At 10.59 on 13/7/08 I called the consular office in Cairo - the phone rang, and rang and rang, yes you've guessed it, there was no answer!

Not deterred, I rang the FCO again (11.00 - 13/7/08) and spoke to a different official.  She provided me with the correct number for the consular official in Sharm el Sheikh, and reconfirmed the number for the consular office in Cairo.

At 11.06 on 13/7/08, I called the consular official in Sharm el Sheikh - the phone rang for a minute, then cut off!

At 11.07 on 13/7/08, I called the consular official in Sharm el Sheikh - the phone rang for less than a minute, then cut off!

At 11.07 on 13/7/08, I called the consular official in Sharm el Sheikh - this time the phone connected to voicemail, only to be advised that they were not available and that all emergencies were to be directed to the Cairo consular office!

Not deterred, at 11.08 on 13/7/08, I called the Consular office in Cairo.  The phone rang for nearly 2 minutes, then cut off!

At 11.10 on 13/7/08, I again called the Consular office in Cairo.  Again the phone rang for nearly 2 minutes, the cut off!

At 11.12 on 13/7/08, I called the Consular office in Cairo.  This time the phone rang for less than a minute, then cut off!

At 11.13 on 13/7/08, I called the Response Team at the FCO and spoke to the original gentleman.  I pointed out the difficulties I had experienced in contacting the various consul's in Egypt; less experienced travellers would have given up, and therefore would receive no guidance and assistance.

To his credit, he offered to intervene and arrange contact directly with this family.  This offer was greatly accepted!  Details of the first point of contact for this family were given.

At 11.18 on 13/7/08, I advised the family of our actions, and the intentions of the FCO.

At 12.16 on 13/7/08, I was contacted by the response team and advised that their official had spoken with the family, and that the matter had now been resolved with the tour operator.  A victory for common sense - heads had been banged together, or so I thought!

At 12.21 on 13/7/08, I left a message for the family in Egypt, asking them to confirm that matters had in fact been resolved.

At 12.37 on 13/7/08, I received a text message which states:

"Apologies for missing your call.  They [The Local Consul] have contacted us and they advised us it is the tour operators responsibility and we should resolve this via [Tour Operator Name].  As yet we do not have any resolution".

At 12.46 on 13/7/08, I again called the Response Team at the FCO and left a message for their first point of contact to call me urgently.

At 12.53 on 13/7/08, I again called the Tour Operator, and again having to leave a message, requesting that they provide urgent assistance to this Family.

At 12.54 on 13/7/08, I received a call from the Response team at the FCO.  The first point of contact agreed that his earlier message had given the impression that matters had been resolved.  I explained what had happened when the consular official in Egypt had contacted the family, and that he had clearly lead the conversation toward the tour operator, receiving agreement from the family member that they would try to talk to the operator again.  This had clearly been done without recognition of the difficulties they had already experienced!  Again to his credit, he advised that he would investigate.

At 12.57 on 13/7/08, I contacted the family, and was advised that the phone was passed directly to another family member when the consular official called (the first points of contact were not in the vicinity at the time).  The official did not insist on speaking to the named first points of contact, and simply elicited that family member's agreement, that they would sort the problem themselves through the tour operator!  The family member had the impression that the consular official would not help with their problem, and that they were very much on their own!

At 13.03 on 13/7/08 I received text confirmation that the tour operator had received my communication.

At 13.15 on 13/7/08, I was contacted by the Response Team at the FCO in London.  Their point of contact advised that their official had spoken to a family member, who apparently advised that they were experiencing no problem!  The official advised that they should seek the assistance of the tour operator, and he was also apparently advised that they required no further assistance from the consular office.  I was asked the question why had the family not requested assistance when it was being offered?  The first point of contact stated that he had knowledge of the team, and had no reason to doubt their account of the story.  I explained that I had no reason to doubt the family story either; the family were in clear difficulty and required assistance.  I was advised that the Consular Service did not intervene in disputes between holidaymakers and tour operators.

It was clear that the point had been missed; our client needed a wheelchair, they were not being asked to intervene in a dispute, but to provide urgent assistance, through their contacts to a sick elderly man!  It was also clear that the consular service was not going to advance the matter further, so I politely thanked the Response desk and the Egyptian office for their help.

At 13.34 on 13/7/08, I contacted the family and advised them of the result of my dealings with the FCO.  They family were understandably very concerned, and I re-assured them that I would do all that I could to try and help them.  I explained that it was still possible that they would receive assistance from the tour operator!  Above anything, they had to remain calm and deal with each moment when it arrived.

At 14.21 on 13/7/08, I received confirmation from the tour operator that they were working on the problem!

At 15.46 on 13/7/08, I received a text from the family, which stated:

"As yet we haven't heard anything. [Name] said that if this is the case he will have no option but to sit him on a case trolley".

This aspect was communicated to the tour operator.

Neither I nor the family received any further contact from the tour operator.

At 16.54, 17.51, 17.53 and 18.51 I called this family and was advised that there was no assistance when the bus arrived to take them to the airport.  However, when they arrived at the airport a wheelchair was available which averted what would clearly be an undignified and shabby scene.  We assume that the tour operator was responsible for this resolution.

So what are the lessons to be learnt here?

Well, I can imagine the FCO will feel that the criticism levelled at them is unjustified.  It is over 2 years since the FCO launched a rebrand of the Consular Service.  As members of the 'Know Before You Go' campaign, I was invited to that launch, and I was advised that the FCO would become more responsive to holidaymakers needs given the demise of the tour representative.  It was their aim to provide an accessible and wider service to meet the needs of British Citizens in difficulty.

In over 2 years, we have only contacted the Response Team 3 times; we do not make a habit of running to the FCO every time a holidaymaker has a problem.  The issues highlighted in this blog demonstrate clearly the desperation felt by travellers who feel that they have no further option.  The 'What do you want us to do?' question, or discussions on sematics do nothing to enhance the clear and good aspirations of the FCO.  In addition, we hear from other holidaymakers of their difficulties when trying to contact consular offices, a fact demonstrated by this experience.

It is vitally important that the FCO recognise these shortcomings, and in particular develop a solution away from the closed door that appears to have been adopted in this case.  Many holidaymakers are just ordinary working people from a wide variety of backgrounds.  Many find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, and experience difficulties in comprehending or expressing those difficulties.  The base question that should be asked in a scenario such as this is; "would I want my own parent to experience this holidaymakers problem, if not, what is the quickest solution?"

From the tour operators perspective; whatever other issues exist between themselves and any client, local representatives should be taught to recognise the separation of any dispute and the need to show compassion.  That single lesson is the best marketing tool that any organisation can apply!

I would certainly be interested to hear of any holidaymaker who has experienced a similar problem!

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