One in four border officials in isolation as Covid brings chaos to Heathrow
Government losing track of coronavirus cases entering the UK, Border Force union warns
Queues of up to a quarter of a mile have been reported at Heathrow airport after an outbreak of Covid-19 left Border Force short of staff.
As airports prepare for a surge in arrivals due to travel restrictions easing, “more than one in four border staff” were off work over the weekend at the UK’s busiest airport due to coronavirus regulations, The Times reports.
Of the 300 Border Force officials working at the airport, 80 were absent with Covid, while dozens more were forced into self-isolation because they had been in close contact with their colleagues.
The delays were exacerbated when a new security database caused hold-ups at automated gates, with the Daily Mail reporting that the Home Office’s £372m new security computer system was “crashing repeatedly” throughout the weekend.
The software failure meant all passengers were rejected by the E-gates in Heathrow’s arrivals halls and had to be checked manually by immigration officers. Passengers reported long queues and complained that a lack of social distancing risked spreading the virus to thousands of arrivals.
Tom Kibasi, deputy chair of Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust, shared a photograph on Twitter showing a queue “stretching the full length of Heathrow Terminal 5” – a distance of roughly a quarter of a mile.
Another delayed passenger, Carmen Ogilvie, posted a video of the tailbacks, adding: “Ridiculous queues for immigration at Heathrow. What’s the point of all these safety measures if this is our arrival?”
Passenger numbers are expected to surge from this morning as double-jabbed travellers from the EU and US will no longer have to quarantine on arrival in the UK.
A spokesperson for the airport conceded that queue times at border control had “on occasion been unacceptable”, but said this was due to Border Force carrying out spot checks to ensure passengers were complying with government entry requirements.
However, the union that represents Border Force officials has accused ministers of having no way of knowing if travellers are bringing Covid into the country.
The Union for Borders, Immigration and Customs told The i that since its officers were ordered by the government not to check the Covid status of incoming passengers in July, the UK has lost track of who is entering Britain with the virus.
Lucy Moreton, professional officer at the union, said that while airlines, Eurostar and ferry operators were meant to check passengers had tested negative, there is no system in place to confirm they are doing so.
She added that “like in the rest of society, officers are catching Covid at an increasing rate since lockdown restrictions were relaxed” which is “leading to longer queues for passengers”.