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Passport queues: why are they so long and will they get worse this summer?

Simon Calder
·6-min read
Force field: arrivals area at Heathrow airport Terminal 5  (Simon Calder)
Force field: arrivals area at Heathrow airport Terminal 5 (Simon Calder)

The number of travellers coming into Britain’s airports, seaports and international rail stations is only a fraction of normal levels. Yet officials at Heathrow say that some travellers are waiting in line for UK Border Force for up to six hours.

This is at a time when all non-essential travel from the UK is illegal. So what is going wrong? And what will happen after international trips resume, currently expected to be on 17 May?

The key questions and answers are here.

What is the situation at Heathrow and elsewhere?

Heathrow, the UK’s principal arrival point, is currently handling only 10 to 15 per cent of normal arrivals – corresponding to 10,000-15,000 inbound travellers each day.

The biggest problems, as well as the biggest passenger numbers, are at Heathrow.

Last week a senior executive at the airport told MPs that waits were typically between two and six hours.

Chris Garton, the chief solutions officer, said police were having to become involved with disruptive passengers.

“It is a problem today, but it will become a much bigger problem after 17 May,” he said.

As Heathrow calls for increased resourcing, other airports are coping more easily – but that is largely because they have seen traffic collapse even further; Manchester is down to 5 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, while Stansted has just 2 per cent of normal activity.

The Home Office, which is responsible forUK Border Force, says “the right level of resources” are in place.

A spokesperson said: “We are in a global health pandemic – people should not be travelling unless absolutely necessary.

What is the hold-up?

All kinds of reasons are behind the very long waits at Heathrow.

All other things being equal: were the same number of staff to process the much-reduced number of passengers, you would expect queues to shrink to a matter of a few minutes.

But several factors make this anything but normal.

  • Staffing. As with any public facing frontline activity, the women and men who inspect passports are particularly exposed to Covid infections and must also avoid any risk of passing on the virus to colleagues and travellers. (There have also been reports that officers’ positions at the UK Border have insufficient dividers to allow them all to be deployed.)

  • Automation. The government insists on 100 per cent face-to-face checking of arriving travellers, which means that eGates cannot be used. The electronic fast track gates, which match the passenger’s face with their passport, were switched off in February, at the same time as draconian rules on travel abroad were imposed.

  • Documentation. All travellers are required to have pre-booked two PCR tests for days two and eight after their arrival. But many people coming into the UK are either unaware of this obligation, or ignore it. Border Force officials must check to see if the tests have been correctly booked, and order the traveller to arrange them before passing across the frontier.

In addition, details on the Passenger Locator Form are checked, and arrivals from “red list” countries challenged to produce their booking for 11 nights of hotel quarantine.

Shouldn’t checks be made before they come to the UK?

Yes, and one of the mysteries surrounding the current Border Force issues is that little action appears to be taken against the airlines who failed to check that all the document is in order.

This is in contrast to the fines that are imposed when airlines bring people to the UK who are not authorised to enter the country.

Any other problems?

Yes: fake Covid certificates. Lucy Moreton, an officer at the Immigration Services Union (ISU), which represents border immigration and customs staff, told MPs: “We do get 100 or more a day of fake Covid certificates, that we catch.”

How are other forms of transport faring?

For arrivals by ferry on the main links from Calais and Dunkerque to Dover, UK Border Force checks take place on French territory. That means any problems are identified before the traveller boards a ship to Kent and queues do not build up.

The same applies for journeys through the Channel Tunnel – on Eurotunnel car-carrying shuttles from Calais to Folkestone, and Eurostar trains from Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam to London St Pancras.

These routes also have traffic at way below the usual levels, reducing possible pressure.

What will happen from 17 May onwards?

When the UK government allows non-essential international travel to resume, the effect on arrivals will build up only gradually.

The vast majority of usual locations for British holidaymakers will be on the amber or red lists, with only a handful of realistic destinations rated green – which does not require quarantine on return to the UK.

Therefore there will still be strong disincentives to travel to most destinations.

The obligation of Border Force officials to check every traveller face-to-face will continue: even “green” arrivals are required to have pre-booked a single PCR test within two days of reaching the UK.

The Home Office spokesperson said: “As we prepare to resume international travel this summer, Border Force is ensuring that it has the right level of resources to check that passengers are compliant with our border health measures to minimise wait times at the border whilst ensuring we maintain health.

“We are also working with industry partners to improve processes at the border, while maintaining the level of checks necessary to safeguard public health.

“Queues and wait times will be longer, as it is vital that we undertake thorough checks at the border to stop the importation of new Covid-19 cases into the UK.”

But Paul Charles, chief executive of the travel consultancy The PC Agency and a campaigner for easier travel, warned of the risk of “10-hour queues at Heathrow”.

He said: “The current manual system of Border Force checking every form from every visitor entering the UK won’t be able to cope.”

“More people will be travelling from this date, especially those who’ve been vaccinated, enabling many more British citizens to travel to see family and then return from amber and green countries.”

What’s the solution?

The Home Office spokesperson said: ““Passengers should complete the necessary health requirements to enter the UK, such as purchasing Covid-19 testing packages or booking their quarantine hotel in advance of travel.”

As arrival numbers increase, The Independent expects eGates to be reopened at peak times – especially if data shows that the risk of importation of Covid is low.

This could be combined with an easing of restrictions for “green” arrivals so that there is no need to check for a PCR test.

Long term, there are plans to align the Passenger Locator Form – which contains details of the journey, the traveller and any health tests – with the individual’s passport. But this is unlikely to happen before the autumn of 2021.

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