British Ambassador in Ankara, Sir Dominick Chilcott visited Fethiye this week as part of the coastal tour that takes place every year.
The visit was one of many stops on the tour which, this year, followed a route from Ankara to İzmir, Aydın, Bodrum, Muğla, Marmaris, Dalaman, Milas, Fethiye and Antalya.
Fethiye Times caught up with Sir Dominick at the Ece Saray Marina and resort in Fethiye for a chat on Tuesday afternoon.
Can you give us a general outline of the responsibilities of the British Embassy towards British nationals living in Turkey.
We don’t see ourselves as the people who interfere in the lives of the British community. We’re there for the British community if they get into trouble, have difficulties or if they need very specific things they can’t get through the Turkish system. An example would be they might want to register a birth and we can point them in the right direction.
Essentially our view is that when British people go and live overseas, they abide by the laws of the country in which they live and, so long as everything goes well, they don’t need to have contact with the British Embassy or local British Consulate.
If they have particular enquiries about what’s going on in the UK or between the UK and Turkey, they can ask us and we’ll do our best to help.
That changes when there is a crisis. When there’s a crisis we are no longer hands-off and then, as the representation of the British government in Turkey, we do our best to provide the information that the community needs in the crisis. I hope that what we’ve done in the last few months is do our best to let people know how the laws and regulations have been changing in Turkey with the introduction of the lockdown and, for those visitors who may have property in Turkey and came here for a couple of weeks and got stuck here, we’ve been doing our best to help them if they’ve wanted to find a way to return to the UK. It’s that sort of relationship, we’re there if you need us but we’re not looking to direct you or steer you or manage you or bother you when things are going normally.
Were you able to help Britsh people who are resident in Turkey who were trapped in the UK?
We did hear from some of the British residents trapped in the UK. On the whole, we had to direct them to the Turkish authorities because they made the decisions on who could come into the country and when and how. If they had Residence Permits to be in Turkey then, through the Turkish Embassy in London, they could apply for a rescue flight that the Turkish government organised with Turkish Airlines. We weren’t really involved with that process other than saying that these were the people you need to talk to.
How has the Embassy worked with the Turkish authorities during the COVID-19 crisis to assist British nationals?
When we were aware of the crisis in the middle of February, we changed the way we worked with our Consulate in Istanbul and the Embassy in Ankara. We formed a team that met every morning to go through what needed to be done in terms of reporting back to London on the progress of the pandemic and the measures being adopted in Turkey.
A big part of the daily meetings was the decision as to what to put out in public, a decision based on what we were sure about and what we needed to investigate more.
Our first consular responsibility was to respond to and help people get home to the UK. In order to do that we had to work with the airlines and airports and, in some cases with the Turkish authorities to support the airlines that wanted to operate flights in the first instance.
We worked with the Provincial and District Governor’s offices when the lockdown was first imposed and there were restrictions on whether people could travel. Sometimes there were flights going out but people weren’t sure whether they could get to the airport in the first place and, in some cases, they needed letters to allow them to travel to the airports. We worked with the Turkish authorities to deal with those issues. Where there were questions about what do the rules mean for us, we went to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Turkish Ministry of Health and asked for clarification. We used our Travel Advice web page as the main vehicle of communication however that wasn’t the only way we communicated. We realised that we could talk directly to the British people in Turkey if they registered with us, let us know who they were and gave us an email address. We ran an operation to encourage people to register if they would like information from us. Over 800 people registered which meant that when there was an important piece of news about a change in circumstances, or in particular if there was a flight in an area where people were saying they want a flight where they don’t have to go to Istanbul, we could let people know quite quickly through this scheme. That was new to us because, up until that point, there was a general invitation that if people wanted to register with us, they could, but we weren’t pushing them to do so. It was another way that the crisis changed things, we felt we needed to have more direct communication with people.
How difficult was it to keep flight information up to date?
Information about flights was changing hour by hour so we would hear something but we wouldn’t put any information out until we could confirm there was going to be a flight. Once we got confirmation from the airline and authorities, and we knew that the airline had put the flight on their own website, we would then, as quickly as we could, publicise it. Frustratingly sometimes, even as we were putting the information out, things were changing, flights were being withdrawn or dates were changing. It was a battle to keep up.
What is the situation in Turkey now and what might be expected?
The situation in Turkey now in terms of the disease is that the number of new cases daily, as reported, is now under 1,000, which is, for a population of 82 million, a very low number. The number of people in intensive care is around 1,200 a number that is creeping up in ones and twos suggesting that the way the disease is affecting the population seriously is flatlining at the moment.
There seems to be outbreaks in parts of the country that are a bit more traditional, like the southeast where they may be driven by cultural habits of large scale gatherings for weddings, funerals or ceremonies held to wave people goodbye as they go off to do their National Service. I think it is quite hard for people to give that up even though they provide circumstances where the disease can spread.
In the tourist areas, here in Muğla, Antalya and Aydın, the instances of the disease is so low, the likelihood of bumping into somebody who has the disease is almost negligible, which is excellent.
The next issue is whether, as tourism restarts and all these new people start coming in from countries with a higher rate of the disease and the chance that they bring it with them, causing new outbreaks in areas that were almost disease free. That’s the risk, but this part of the world has to find a balance between a healthy population and a healthy economy. We must hope that the rigorous Safe Tourism Certification Programme that has been introduced with its 130 plus standards, measures and regulations, means that the airports, hotels and restaurants, first of all make a big effort to qualify and be certified and then be sufficiently regularly inspected to maintain those high standards. The standards provide for social distancing and hygiene routines which, properly implemented, are the best defence. Even if people come in with the virus, they prevent it spreading further.
At the airports, temperature checks are carried out on anyone coming in and anyone showing any symptoms is given a PCR test at the airport where they have new facilities to do the tests. If the PCR test is positive, they take you to a hospital where the doctors will decide whether you need to stay in the hospital or if you can self-isolate at your hotel or house. Hotels have to provide quarantine areas and, if you have paid for a weeks holiday but have to stay for two weeks, the hotel is obliged to pay for the other week so you’re not out of pocket. You lose your holiday as you have to spend it in a room but, given that you’ve got Covid, wherever you are in the world you’d have to be in a room. It’s a pretty well-organised and quite generous scheme and for British tourists, or indeed any visitors, there’s a special Covid related health insurance policy that covers your Covid treatment up to approximately €70,000. The Minster for Tourism was explaining to a group of Ambassadors recently that the average price of the most sophisticated Covid treatment you get in a Turkish hospital is about €4,000 so the cover should be plenty. As far as possible, they’ve thought this through well to provide for safe tourism.
They’re also good in Turkey at tracking and tracing with plenty of volunteers to make the phone calls. We’ve all filled our forms in as we arrived at the hotel so, if somebody gets the disease at this hotel, I’m sure we’ll all get a call asking if we were in contact with the person and asking how we are feeling.
Turkey makes a tremendous investment in terms of hospital capacity. There are a lot of intensive care beds in this country and the hospitals have never been under pressure for space for Covid-19 patients, they’ve always had more capacity than needed so that side of things is very reassuring.
We have to wait and see how the reintroduction of international tourism affects their ability to control the illness. So far, they’ve done well.
One other point is, a lot comes down to individual people’s behavior and, I’m not saying this about any particular group, but when people are on holiday, part of that holiday is to relax a bit and sort of kick back. They just need to be reminded that there is a global pandemic going on and to kick back responsibly.
Do you have any message for the British nationals living in Turkey?
Firstly I’d say read Fethiye Times because you’ve taken on this role of being a big information source for the community which is really important.
I think secondly, we’d encourage everybody, wherever you are, to please obey the local laws and rules – and make a point of finding out what they are as they will be changing. Don’t be passive about it, go out and make some friends who are tuned into what’s going on and do your best to keep up with things. That’s your best protection – in a pandemic or not – and that’s what you should be doing. When things are difficult, we in the Embassy will do our best to help. In normal circumstances, we’ll expect people to come to us and ask for help as we don’t go out checking up on how you’re doing. In a crisis we will be more active and I would remind people that the best vehicle we use for providing information to people in Turkey is our Travel Advice that contains all sorts of information about conditions of living and rules and regulations in Turkey. Please read it.
Is there anything about Fethiye you would like to know more about?
One of the things I haven’t done personally is had a lot of contact with the British community in Turkey as they tend not to live in Ankara. You’re quite a long way from us and, although there is a concentration here of around 8,000, you are spread out a lot around this coastline. I suppose the question is, if people would like to see the Ambassador from time to time, I’m very happy to turn up and be present. Maybe in conjunction with Fethiye Times, we could set something up. The risk is, if we try to set it up ourselves from a distance, it might not get much traction and that would be a pity. If we had local community organisers, which is what you are effectively, then maybe we could do something as a partnership.
Lastly, what is the purpose of the coastal tour?
The coastal tour has a very specific purpose. In order for Turkey to be a safe destination for British visitors, we want to be sure that everything is being done to make it safe. The main issues in the past have been whether certain groups may see Turkey as a soft target for some spectacular act which, in the beginning, was the spur for these tours. They were used to reinforce the cooperation that takes place on a day-to-day basis with the local police and jandarma in applying protocols and generally making sure that we’re doing everything we can do to avoid any such act. We talk to the Governors and Chiefs of Police and review how things are going. It is also an opportunity for us to say thank you very much for the effort being put into looking after British visitors to Turkey.
As the tours have gone on, we’ve also included a thank you for the support and help from local authorities for things like the collapse of Monarch airlines and, more recently, Thomas Cook where we had to evacuate nearly 30,000 British people from Turkey who’d lost their return flights. There was an enormous effort put into that and it involved British Consular staff working at airports helping to direct people, some of who were tired and angry about how, where and when they would get a flight back home. We were only allowed to be at the airports because the airport authorities gave us permission. So now we say thank you for that sort of cooperation.
This year, we’ve had another layer because, as well as Monarch, Thomas Cook and counter-terrorism, we’re now saying thank you very much for all the help that’s been given to enable us to provide information and other support, like the letters of permission to travel, that we’ve been able to give to British people who’ve been in Turkey.
It’s the moment when the work we’re doing throughout the year, comes together at a senior level and we acknowledge that we’re doing it and recognise how important it is. We make a firm purpose of carrying this on for the good of the British people that come here and who are also making a big contribution to the Turkish economy. As importantly, they are also making a big contribution to British – Turkish people to people links. I think we have a strong relationship between the UK and Turkey at the moment which is strong because there is a good government to government relationship and it’s strong because there’s a good business relationship. I think what will really sustain it in the future is if we have a myriad of people to people connections between our two countries that will mean we are not strangers to each other. We’ll have some understanding of what each country is going through and that’s good for us.
We would like to say a big thank you to Sir Dominick for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk with Fethiye Times.
Photographs by Norman Clark
British Ambassador to Turkey – Sir Dominick Chilcott
Sir Dominick Chilcott is a career diplomat who joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1982. He has served as:
- High Commissioner to Sri Lanka and Maldives (2006 to 2007)
- Deputy Ambassador to the United States (2008 to 2011)
- Ambassador to Iran (for six weeks only in late 2011 – the posting was ended by the attack on the embassy)
- Ambassador to Ireland. (2012 to 2016)
He is now serving as the UK’s ambassador to the Republic of Turkey.