Air passengers arriving at London Heathrow Airport faced queues of up to three hours today as calls mounted to ensure arrivals from ‘red list’ countries such as India were separated from those coming in from other nations.
All arrivals are currently going into the same queues at the border, which has raised concerns over social distancing and people from amber or green list countries coming into contact with those from red list nations.
Downing Street has insisted that it is down to airports to make sure border queues happen in a Covid-secure way, and that the Government is ‘doing everything possible to make this process as efficient as possible’.
Asked whether amber and red arrivals should be separated at airports, a spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson said today that ‘all arrivals should be managed in a way that is as Covid-secure as possible.’
Border officials have warned tourists face massive queues at airports as international travel expands, after the new the ‘traffic light’ system for foreign trips continued to lead to long queues for the second day in a row at Heathrow.
Yvette Cooper, chairwoman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said today that queues and delays at airports after the reopening of international travel could be a ‘super spreading risk’ if safety measures are not put in place.
A passenger arriving from ‘red list’ India (left) and another arriving from New York in ‘amber list’ US (right) arrive at the same time at London Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 2 this morning
Three children walk in front of a woman at the arrivals hall at London Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 2 this morning
Passengers arrive at London Heathrow Terminal 2 today, one day after the new travel ‘traffic light’ system came into force
Passengers wait to board a coach to a quarantine hotel outside Terminal 2 at Heathrow Airport this morning
Heathrow Terminals 2 and 5 are open (in green) but 3 and 4 (in red) have been mothballed since last year to save money
Speaking to the World At One programme on BBC Radio 4 this afternoon, the Labour MP said Border Force had ‘a long time to prepare’ for the reopening of foreign travel.
She said: ‘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, often standing very close to each other, well that’s a super spreading risk if you continue to do that and don’t have the proper systems in place, especially if you have people arriving from red list countries alongside people arriving from green list countries.
End amber list travel advice shambles: Tourism chiefs’ plea as foreign holiday ban is lifted
Tourism and airline chiefs have been left exasperated after the Government’s mixed messaging on holidays overshadowed the resumption of foreign travel.
Just as the ban on non-essential travel was lifted, Downing Street doubled down and insisted people should only be holidaying in the 12 countries on the ‘green list’.
They should not be travelling to the dozens of popular destinations on the ‘amber list’ unless it is essential, a spokesman said.
But yesterday, around 120 flights left Heathrow alone to amber list countries – compared with just 19 to green, quarantine-free destinations. At Gatwick it was 31 and six respectively.
Huw Merriman, Tory chairman of the transport committee, confronted Health Secretary Matt Hancock in the Commons last night and accused him of ‘effectively turning the amber list into red’.
He added: ‘Can I ask him what the point is of me having my passport any more? This Covid will always mutate, the vaccine will always have to keep up, we’ve managed to vaccinate 99 per cent of the mortality risk. When will this Government actually take a little bit of risk and allow people to get on with their lives again?’
Mr Hancock replied: ‘He should get his passport out, he can get on a plane to Portugal or one of the other [green list] countries.’
He also faced calls for ‘clarity’ in the Commons from predecessor Jeremy Hunt, who said: ‘Should my constituents go on holiday to countries on that amber list even when it is no longer illegal?’
Mr Hancock replied: ‘The answer is no. People should not travel to amber or red list countries or territories… unless you have an exceptional reason.’
Last night, the bosses of British Airways, easyJet and Heathrow were among those to call for greater clarity from ministers. They also demanded that the quarantine-free travel ‘green list’ should be expanded to stem the losses that threaten the industry’s future.
‘So they’ve got to make sure they have proper systems in place, that they have enough Border Force staff in place, that they have enough electronic systems in place, and if they don’t have those things in place at a time when we’re all desperately trying to keep the progress moving forwards, 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, those public health border policies, that have in previous waves made the pandemic significantly worse.’
Layla Moran MP, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on coronavirus, added: ‘We cannot allow farcical scenes to continue in which those arriving from red list countries are mixing with others in overcrowded arrival halls, potentially allowing dangerous variants to spread.
‘The government must rethink its flawed approach and discourage overseas holidays while providing proper financial support to the travel industry.’
Today, one source at Heathrow watched passengers who walked into the Terminal 2 arrivals hall at the same time after landing on flights from New York and India, having spent three hours queuing for border checks.
They said: ‘When the India flights come out, they have a man or a woman in a high vis jacket leading them, and normally they’ll bring about half a dozen people through and they get escorted, at the front and at the back.
‘They then get taken to a separate lift which goes to the basement of Heathrow and then they mix with the public again as they get onto a coach to take them to the quarantine hotel.
‘As that happens, people who were on the New York flights are rushing past the people from the India flights. so you’re less than a metre away from people who are going to be quarantined. It just makes no sense whatsoever.’
One passenger stuck in a queue in Terminal 2 yesterday morning told MailOnline: ‘I arrived back in the country from South Africa – one of the Red Listed countries. I was more terrified catching Covid while going through border control than walking around South Africa.
‘While queuing there was no social distancing we had a plane from India arrive straight after ours and we queued for over three hours and when their plane arrived it was out the door.’
Heathrow sources said consideration was being given to opening another terminal but that it was currently ‘economically not viable’.
Opening another terminal would cost millions of pounds and airport officials have told the Government that ministers would need to help foot the bill.
Terminals 2 and 5 are open but 3 and 4 have been mothballed since last year in a bid to save money due to the economic hit inflicted by the pandemic.
Re-opening another terminal will only become economically viable when more countries are added to the travel ‘green list’, meaning passenger numbers will likely increase along with revenues generated within the terminal, or if ministers stump up more financial support.
Passengers push their luggage as they walk through the arrivals hall at London Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 2 this morning
A woman pushes luggage through the arrivals hall at Heathrow Terminal 2 today as people arrive in Britain from abroad
Border sources have predicted far longer waits to get back into Britain later this month – particularly when those who began holidays yesterday begin to return.
‘The flight numbers aren’t ramping up yet but when they do it will be unworkable at the border,’ one insider told the Daily Mail. ‘We are struggling as it is.
‘There’s been a significant increase in the amount of work that has to be done for each passenger at the border – and that takes time for every single arrive, UK national or not. I fear we will be unable to cope.’
Border checks currently involve multiple stages in addition to the usual eligibility and anti-terror screenings that are carried out by immigration officers.
Covid rules mean officers must determine whether a passenger has arrived from a green, amber or red list country, examine their ‘passenger locator form’, and that they have a valid negative Covid test certificate, as well as bookings for tests on the 2nd and 8th days after arriving.
Arrivals from red list countries must also show proof of their mandatory hotel quarantine bookings.
Steve Myall, who returned with his wife and young family from New York to Heathrow yesterday, said: ‘The border arrivals hall had people from flights from all over the place with no social distancing – red list people next to amber list.
Air passengers arrive at London Heathrow this morning as they wear face masks while walking through the arrivals hall
Passengers walk through the arrivals hall at London Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 2 yesterday
‘Bearing in mind kids can’t get vaccinated you would have thought they would move families through quicker.
‘I don’t see why it’s such chaos. If variants are the concern then throw money at the border or maybe a plan to make it hellish to put people off travel.’
He added: ‘I suspect it’s going to be chaos once the airport is taking UK nationals back when they’ve been away.’
Heathrow Airport chief John Holland-Kaye insisted things had got better at the border since queues of up to seven hours last month. He said queues were now often much shorter partly due to guard numbers being boosted.
‘When I was in immigration the other day, there were no queues, we had enough desks opened and half of the e-gates in Terminal 5 were open,’ he said.
‘What I heard from the head of Border Force [Paul Lincoln] is that now that upgrade has happened all would be open unless they were taken out for upgrades.
‘So effectively most passengers who previously used e-gates will be able to use e-gates again.’ He added: ‘We have raised our concerns about what we’ve seen at the border over the last few months where there have been far longer queues than are necessary.
Passengers queue up for check-in in the departures hall at London Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 2 this morning
People wait to check-in for international flights in the departures hall at London Heathrow’s Terminal 2 this morning
‘However, by raising it as a public issue we have seen the Home Office and Border Force respond, they’ve accelerated the automation process [by opening up e-gates] which we have been calling for.
‘They put more officers on the desks and started to change their processes, and that is converting into shorter queues at the border.
‘I’m glad to see that Border Force seems to be stepping up.’ Asked if measures at the border were ‘fit for purpose’ yet, British Airways chief Sean Doyle said he was ‘encouraged’ by some of the progress made.
But he added: ‘I think it needs to improve as we get into the summer. And I think there needs to be a commitment from all parties to make it improve. That’s going to be very important.
‘We have a lot of work to do. But we’re progressing along the right direction which is to use automation, which is to reopen the e-gates and to work as both airlines, airports and with Border Force together to get this up and running.’
Meanwhile, Environment Secretary George Eustice defended the timing of the Government’s decision to effectively ban travel from India by adding it to the red list from April 23.
Airline staff help passengers check-in in the departures hall at London Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 2 this morning
In response to suggestions the decision was taken too late, Environment Secretary Mr Eustice told ITV’s Good Morning Britain today: ‘What we did is put India on the red list a full six days before that variant was even under investigation and a full two weeks before it was declared a variant of concern.
‘We did put India on the list as soon as we saw an uptick in prevalence and well before the Indian variant was declared a variant of concern.’
And Mr Johnson has said India was placed on the red list of travel restrictions before the coronavirus variant first identified in the country was of concern.
The Prime Minister said today: ‘If you look at what happened with the variant we are talking about, the so-called Indian variant, the B1617.2, India was put on the red list before this was even a variant under investigation, let alone a variant of concern.
‘So we took prompt action and we will continue to take very, very draconian action in respect of all variants coming from wherever around the world.’
A Home Office 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 roll-out 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.’