Manually checking Covid-19 paperwork and quarantine requirements at UK airport arrivals ‘now takes 15 minutes per traveller’
Last modified on Tue 18 May 2021 13.15 EDT
Britons returning from holidays abroad can expect four-hour passport queues in cramped, poorly ventilated arrival halls to become the norm this summer, a Border Force worker has told the Guardian.
Amid claims from passengers arriving at London’s Heathrow airport that they were “terrified” they could catch Covid while waiting in long queues, the worker at Heathrow’s passport control said the matter is only set to worsen this summer unless the government eases the workload on staff.
“Staff are already struggling to cope but only because of what they are being asked to do. Normally a Brit arriving at passport control would clear immigration in 30 seconds,” the worker said, speaking anonymously.
“The current requirements to manually check Covid-19 testing paperwork and quarantine requirements mean that each person is taking 15 minutes to process.
“Everyone is back at work– including formally shielding staff – but the truth is that there simply isn’t the capacity for staff to carry out the checks demanded by the government.
“Flights are currently running at around 15% of normal capacity. If they return to anywhere near their normal level, and the processes remain as they are, it’s going to be a very frustrating summer of long, four- to six-hour waits,” he said.
Passengers arriving at Heathrow on Monday described how they were waiting for up to three hours to clear passport control alongside travellers from India and other high-risk destinations.
Those arriving from red list countries – connected to the prevalence of Covid variants – are supposed to be separated from other passengers before being processed at passport control and then put on buses to quarantine hotels. However, a member of the security staff at Terminal 2 told the Guardian that the reality “was very different”.
Steve Myall, who had flown in to London from the US on Monday, documented his experience on Twitter. During his two-hour wait to be processed he said he had been directed to sit next to a family who had arrived from a red list country, despite the US being on the UK’s amber, or medium risk, list.
Despite warnings from ministers, thousands of British holidaymakers have flouted government advice and boarded flights to red and amber list destinations, after international travel resumed on Monday.
Yvette Cooper, the Labour MP and chair of the home affairs select committee, warned that UK airports could pose a “super-spreading risk”, if left unchecked.
England's traffic light system: what does it mean for international holidaymakers?
Ministers say that from 17 May at the earliest international travel for leisure may be able to resume, and that countries would be placed in a traffic light system, with green, amber and red lists that would set out the rules for things such as testing and quarantining for those returning to England:
Green: passengers will not need to quarantine on return (unless they receive a positive result) but must take a pre-departure test as well as a PCR test on arrival back in the UK. A handful of countries and territories are on the initial green list including Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Portugal and the Falkland Island.
Amber: travellers will need to quarantine for 10 days, as well as taking a pre-departure test and two PCR tests (on day two and day eight) with the option of paying for a private Covid-19 test on day five (the test to release scheme) to end self-isolation early.
Red: arrivals will be subject to restrictions currently in place for red list countries, which include a 10-day stay in a managed quarantine hotel, as well as pre-departure testing and and two PCR tests.
Which list a country is put on will depend on a number of factors including the percentage of the population that has been vaccinated, infection rates and the prevalence of “variants of concern”.
Given travel is a devolved matter, the administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will decide whether to follow suit or adopt a different approach.
Rupert Jones and Aubrey Allegretti
“It’s irresponsible, frankly, not to sort this out because if you have people waiting for long periods of time in a not brilliantly ventilated arrivals hall, that’s a super-spreading risk,” she told the BBC.
“There’s a real risk that we’ll end up just going backwards again. And this is against a long history of errors and mistakes in the policies at the border,” the MP said.
A London Heathrow spokesperson said Border Force is responsible for separating red-list passengers in their immigration halls.
“Those from the red list are directed into a dedicated channel. After crossing the border, government contractors then escort red-list passengers to a segregated area of our baggage hall to collect their luggage before taking them to dedicated hotel quarantine transportation.
“There are numerous measures to keep passengers and colleagues safe, including requirements for negative tests pre-departure for international arrivals, enhanced cleaning regimes, dedicated Covid marshals to enforce social distancing and mandatory use of face coverings throughout the airport.”
A government spokesperson said: “Protecting public health is our priority and as we reopen international travel safely we will maintain 100% health checks at the border to protect the wider public and our vaccine rollout.
“While we do this, wait times are likely to be longer and we will do all we can to smooth the process, including the rollout of our e-Gate upgrade programme during the summer and deploying additional Border Force officers. Arrangements for queues and the management of returning passengers are the responsibility of the relevant airport, which we expect to be done in a Covid-secure way.”
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