Mandelson's Dunkirk:

Business Secretary announces rescue plans for thousands stranded in air crisis

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Royal Navy and merchant ships may form flotilla to spearhead repatriation

A Dunkirk-style sea rescue of the thousands of Britons stranded abroad by the volcano ash flight ban was being planned by the Government last night.

Royal Navy ships may be joined by commandeered civilian vessels to bring home British citizens, who have now been stuck since last Thursday across Europe and around the world.

It is possible that Spain, which is largely unaffected by the giant ash cloud from the Icelandic volcano, allowing aircraft to fly in its air space, may be used as the "hub" of the operation for people who are stranded outside Europe, principally in Africa and North America.

Last night, Gordon Brown was speaking to Jose Luis Zapatero, the Prime Minister of Spain and also the current president of the EU, to discuss the idea.

The giant rescue plan, which has shades of the evacuation of the British Army from the Belgian Channel port of Dunkirk in May 1940, was drawn up last night at a meeting of senior ministers in Downing Street presided over by Mr Brown. It was also attended by senior staff from the Met Office and the Government's chief scientific adviser, Professor John Beddington. The plan was unveiled at an impromptu press conference outside No 10 afterwards, by the Business Secretary Lord Mandelson,the Foreign Secretary David Miliband, the Transport Secretary Lord Adonis, the Security minister Admiral Lord West and the Cabinet Office minister Tessa Jowell. "We need to look at every single logistical operation for getting our people home, and that's what we're going to do," Lord Mandelson said.

It was noticeable that Lord Mandelson took on the task of public reassurance, and that Mr Brown himself did not appear – presumably to avoid charges of making political capital out of the situation, in the run-up to the general election. But the Prime Minister is central to the rescue operation and will preside over a meeting of the "Cobra" civil contingencies committee this morning.

The Government is acting because there is increasing concern that the ash cloud from the volcano Eyjafjallajoekull, which has now drifted over much of Britain and northern Europe and has made flights for aircraft with jet engines hazardous, shows no sign of dispersing.

The volcano is continuing to erupt – although it appeared to have slackened slightly yesterday – and north-westerly winds are bringing the ash directly to Britain from Iceland. The current weather pattern shows no sign of shifting before mid-week at the earliest. Last night, the Met Office said it would still not be safe to fly commercial aircraft across most of Europe today. Restrictions on flights across UK airspace will remain in place until at least 7pm today, the air traffic control company Nats said last night.

European transport ministers are meeting by video conference later to discuss the situation. However, there are some suggestions that the restrictions are too stringent and there is a growing call for them to be lifted. The transport ministers will be considering new data on volcanic ash and aircraft engines gathered over the weekend during test flights run by a number of airlines, including KLM, Lufthansa, Air France and last night, British Airways.

They will look at whether, in the light of the new data, the safety rules which have prevented airlines from operating can be adjusted. But Lord Adonis said last night that the rules were international and were being applied in exactly the same way in every country across Europe. Lord Mandelson added: "The Government's primary concern and commitment is for the safety of air passengers. You cannot simply take risks or vary rules except on the basis of independent, objective scientific advice."

In the meantime, thousands of people are facing increasingly stressful circumstances in foreign airports as far away as Beijing. Mr Miliband said the Foreign Office's consular officials around the world were making themselves known to stranded passengers at airports and other places, to provide information and help with visa, health and other issues. All passengers who are stranded and who have an EU carrier have a right to food and accommodation, Lord Adonis said, advising those who had not yet benefited to contact their airline. The Government was doing all it could to maximise new land transport capacity, he said, with additional trains running between London and Scotland, and on the Eurostar line to Paris and Brussels, with a big increase in the number of coaches running through the Channel Tunnel.

Airlines and the travel industry are believed to have already run up losses of more than £1bn since Europe became a no-fly zone. Asked if there might be an emergency bailout for affected airlines, Lord Mandelson said: "Obviously there is tremendous financial pressure on the airlines. We will continue to talk to them and examine possibilities, but I have to stress there are European rules that operate here."

The Falklands veteran Lord West said: "We clearly have reasonable lift capacity within the Royal Navy for shifting people. That's being looked at at the moment to see what's available, particularly in the amphibious force itself, which can lift a whole brigade if necessary. But we also have the opportunity to take up ships from trade, which does give us a quite a lot of capacity, if needed."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
The two faces revealed by the ultraviolet light
newsScholars left shaken after shining ultraviolet light on 500-year-old Welsh manuscript
News
Rosamund Pike played Bond girld Miranda Frost, who died in Die Another Day (PA)
news
Arts and Entertainment
books
News
newsHow do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? With people like this
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: In House Counsel - Contracts

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading supplier of compliance software a...

Recruitment Genius: Associate System Engineer

£24000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Associate System Engineer r...

Recruitment Genius: Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Executive Assistant is required to join a l...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat