The UK Government is facing withering criticism that it has been too slow to help British overseas territories devastated by Hurricane Irma as it announced a military task force is being sent to the Caribbean to help tackle the disaster.
HMS Ocean, the Royal Navy’s flagship, will lead a group of helicopters, marines and engineers dispatched to the region amid fears for the safety of around 50,000 British citizens on various islands in the storm’s path.
But Britain’s response was in contrast to the French and Dutch relief efforts after they sent a comparable taskforces a day earlier.
A former UK EU representative for the government of Anguilla, part of the British Virgin Islands, slammed the UK’s response as “pathetic” and “disgraceful” and a Labour MP condemned the “slow and late” reaction.
UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said those affected were “British people” and the UK was “going to do everything possible to get help to them”.
The Foreign Office is braced for scores of British expats and holidaymakers requiring help after the storm, which is now the most powerful Atlantic Ocean hurricane in recorded history and has already killed 13 people.
The taskforce will join the Royal Navy ship RFA Mount Bay, a supply boat rather than a battleship, that was already in Anguilla. The British Virgin Islands have been badly damaged by Irma, and the storm is expected to hit the Turks and Caicos Islands, another British overseas territory, today.
The UK Government has also announced £12 million in immediate help to Caribbean islands hit by Irma.
The Queen, who is the constitutional monarch of the now independent Antigua and Barbuda, said she and Prince Philip were “shocked and saddened” that around 60% of the island’s approximately 1,400 people were left homeless.
Dorothea Hodge, a former UK-EU representative for the government of Anguilla, told the Guardian:
“It’s absolutely disgraceful that it has taken the whole day for Priti Patel to respond to the worst hurricane we have seen in a British territory since the 1920s.
“Homes have been destroyed, schools and the only hospital badly damaged, and already one death is being reported, and more is to come as there are two more hurricanes scheduled to hit Anguilla in the next few days. Anguillans are all British nationals, as British as the Falklands or Gibraltar.
“In comparison to the French president who has set up an emergency fund, an emergency hotline and a reconstruction fund her response after the storm has passed is absolutely pathetic.”
Josephine Gumbs-Connor, who is a lawyer on Anguilla, told BBC Radio 4 today that the response from the UK has been “sorely lacking”. She said:
“Hurricane Irma was off the charts in terms of strength. It has certainly cut a swathe through Anguilla that has left us in absolute pieces. Our police service has suffered roof damage, so has our court house, so has our prisons, so has the hospital.
“Just in terms of essential services alone we are clearly in limping position. When you look at our island at the moment you would think that it just suffered nuclear bomb devastation.”
She told Sky News residents felt like “third class citizens”.
Blondel Cluff, the current UK-EU representative of Anguilla, said the island now lacks a workable hospital, airport and port, and warned the incident will “blow the lid off the entire relationship between the UK and its overseas territories”. She told Sky News:
“Personally, I believe it is a rather outdated relationship and I’m sure we will learn the lessons from these situations in terms of how we go forward constitutionally.”
Cluff added the £12 million committed appeared well short of what is required. She said:
“If you divide these among those of us who have been hit, and not withstanding the fact Anguilla is the worst hit of all of them thus far, £12 million will not go very far. At the moment we don’t even have a workable hospital, airport or port.”
Virendra Sharma, a Labour MP who sits on the House of Commons international development committee, wanted the UK to “assure” people more would be committed if necessary after the response was “slow and late but not too late”. He told Sky News:
“When the French government and the Dutch government had responded previously, there is the feeling (the UK) have been late and slow in responding to such a disaster.
“There are 50,000 British citizens living in that area. They are proud to be British citizens. They kept their citizenship when there were political changes. That’s why we need to look at it seriously. They are part of us. We have to look at their needs and support them at the time.”