Nearly a fifth of all Foreign Office staff had to be temporarily redeployed as Britain’s stretched diplomatic service responded to simultaneous crises in the Middle East and the earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan.
For two months, the Foreign Office was in crisis mode and had to be reconfigured in order to deal with uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen while offering emergency consular assistance to British citizens affected by earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan.
An estimated 20 per cent of staff were asked to drop their usual work to join crisis teams. At the peak of the crises, a team of 120 were working on Libya during the day in London, while another 100 were redeployed to handle the consular response in Japan.
Admitting some shortcomings, notably the embarrassing delays in evacuating stranded British nationals out of Libya, a senior Whitehall official said the department had been “tested to its limits”.
One diplomat said it was “the best of times and the worst of times” for the organisation. “No one doubts the importance of our work any more. Now it’s just a question of whether we still have the resources to do it properly,” he said.