Dominic Raab has defended the government’s handling of the Afghanistan crisis as he said the “rapidly deteriorating situation” in the country had prevented a call being made to Afghan ministers while he was on holiday.
The foreign secretary has come under increasing pressure to resign after it was revealed he was on the Greek island of Crete as the Taliban took control of Afghanistan.
But Raab said ministers have been “working tirelessly” over the last week to evacuate British nationals and Afghans, with the priority being keeping Kabul airport open.
It came after it was reported that Foreign Office officials advised the Cabinet minister on August 13 to call Afghan foreign minister Hanif Atmar – two days before the Taliban marched on Kabul – to arrange help for those who supported British troops.
But Raab delegated this to junior minister Lord Goldsmith, and it later emerged the call had never been made.
In a statement on Friday, Raab said: “This was quickly overtaken by events. The call was delegated to a minister of state because I was prioritising security and capacity at the airport on the direct advice of the director and the director-general overseeing the crisis response.
“In any event, the Afghan foreign minister agreed to take the call, but was unable to because of the rapidly deteriorating situation.”
He went on: “The government’s approach to prioritise security at the airport was the right one. As a result, 204 UK nationals and their families, Afghan staff and other countries citizens were evacuated on the morning of Monday 16 August.
“Since then, 1,635 have been evacuated. I pay tribute to the excellent team we have in place, and we continue to prioritise what is required to evacuate people to the UK safely.”
The Times reported that Sir Philip Barton, Matthew Rycroft and David Williams, the respective permanent secretaries of the Foreign Office, Home Office and Ministry of Defence, were on holiday amid the evacuations from Afghanistan.
It is understood the senior officials continued to work on Afghanistan while on leave, with the Whitehall departments running systems where there is another minister or an acting permanent secretary to cover periods of leave.
But Labour has demanded details about the government’s handling of the situation in Afghanistan and the foreign secretary’s holiday while Kabul fell to the Taliban.