Holidaymakers hoping for swift getaway told they will face ‘unacceptable’ queues

·7-min read
 People queue at terminal 5 of Heathrow Airport - Pia Josephson/Reuters
People queue at terminal 5 of Heathrow Airport - Pia Josephson/Reuters

Border Force failings mean passengers will have to endure chaos that makes a mockery of Global Britain, an airports chief has told The Telegraph.

Baroness McGregor-Smith, a Tory peer who chairs the UK’s Airport Operators Association, said Monday’s restart of foreign travel risked being overshadowed by “unacceptable” queues in immigration halls caused by the Government’s “failure to manage the border properly”.

In an exclusive article for The Telegraph, which you can read below, she claimed the current queues – sometimes up to six hours long – were the result of “political choices,” where Border Force desks were left unstaffed and the Home Office had fialed to use downtime during the pandemic to digitise Covid document checks.

“They have had months to improve and digitise the passenger locator form, but only now are the necessary improvements being discussed or trialled,” she wrote.

“Indeed, the upgrades necessary to use ePassport gates again are slated to happen over the summer when passengers are filling border halls when it could have been done while international travel was banned. This is not good enough.

“The UK border experience has long been falling behind our global competitors, but the last year has shown how far behind we are. For a Government that says it wants to see a Global Britain to oversee the chaos we expect, leaves you wondering what they think a Global Britain actually means.”

Her comments came as the Department for Transport (DfT) provoked anger among airline and travel bosses with a social media poster on its traffic light system for travel which warned that, with additional Covid border checks, people should “be prepared for longer wait times”.

It also warned people that they should not travel to “amber list” countries such as Greece, Spain, Italy or France, even though it is not illegal.

Tim Alderslade, the chief executive of Airlines UK, said: “It is not illegal to travel to an amber country and the Government should not be intimating that it is. Airlines and tour operators are selling tickets and putting on holidays to amber destinations based on demand and as allowed under the Global Travel Taskforce report.

“There is a big risk that ramping up the rhetoric will confuse passengers and undermine the recovery of a sector on its knees.”

Border Force says it has more staff available now than at any time since the London Olympics in 2012 and is introducing a quicker process for officers to call up passenger locator forms electronically enabling 80 per cent to pass through without further checks.

However, officials have admitted e-gates – which would allow passengers’ documents to be scanned in seconds – will not be fully operational in all airports until the autumn, meaning manual checks will have to continue. Even after that, Covid test certificates will still have to be checked manually.

The full checks now take 10 to 15 times longer than the previous 25 to 35 seconds per person and can add 30 to 45 minutes if a passenger has failed to fill out their forms correctly.

In one of the worst delays in February, 200 passengers arrived without the correct forms in the space of a few hours, leading to queues of six hours or more. Officials also blamed the airlines, pointing to the fact that 600 fines at £2,000 each have been issued against them for errors.

Restart at risk of being overshadowed by Government failure to manage the border

May 17 should have been a great day for UK aviation, with the ban on international travel finally lifted, writes Baroness McGregor-Smith.

Instead, the restart will only be limited and risks being overshadowed by the Government’s failure to manage the border properly. Aviation is not just important for a well-deserved holiday – for thousands of families across the UK, it is a vital link with their loved ones abroad.

For example, I have not seen my sister and nephew in the US in more than a year. I know I am not alone – around a quarter of all trips abroad in 2019 were for visiting friends and relatives.

Many of us have missed births, graduations and other important milestones of their children or grandchildren. Let’s also not forget the many businesses across the UK that rely on aviation for their own success, whether to find new customers or to export their products.

Sadly, May 17 will not allow for much travel. Only a handful of countries are on the “green list”, with some not exactly known for being a vibrant holiday destinations. Indeed, there weren’t even flights in normal times to South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. Most of our top destinations for holidays, business travel and visiting family are on the “amber list”.

The high cost of tests and the requirement to self-isolate upon return will remain a major barrier to a meaningful restart of travel. Many would-be travellers simply cannot self-isolate upon their return, for example people with young children or those who need to be at work.

The UK and devolved governments need to change their approach. No one is arguing that travel should restart without any safeguards for public health. But the success of the vaccine rollout and the evidence that vaccines reduce transmission should give us the confidence that we can restart in a meaningful but safe way.

Otherwise, 1.6 million jobs relying on aviation and tourism continue to be at risk while the rest of the economy reopens.

For example, instead of reviewing the “green list” every three weeks, countries should be added as and when their health situation allow for travel to restart. The cost of testing should also be brought down so everyone can afford to go abroad. Lateral flow tests are fine for hauliers arriving in the UK, so why shouldn’t they be for the rest of us?

As with schools and the wider economy, any positive lateral flow test could be followed by a PCR test. This also allows for the important genome sequencing to take place. All of this, however, will come to nothing unless the Government sorts out the border urgently. The queues we have seen at airports like Heathrow are unacceptable. They are bad for passengers’ welfare, and also for the safety and security in airports.

The current queues are the result of political choices. Airports have put the Covid measures in place for every desk to be staffed by Border Force, but Border Force choose not to do so.

They have had months to improve and digitise the passenger locator form, but only now are the necessary improvements being discussed or trialled. Indeed, the upgrades necessary to use ePassport gates again are slated to happen over the summer, when passengers are filling border halls, when it could have been done while international travel was banned.

This is not good enough. The UK border experience has long been falling behind our global competitors, but the last year has shown how far behind we are.

For a Government that says it wants to see a Global Britain to oversee the chaos we expect, leaves you wondering what they think a Global Britain actually means. Surely ensuring we can welcome returning residents and visitors alike with a top-notch experience at the border should be the first order of business?

The UK Government has to get the third-biggest aviation market in the world open for business again. Every region benefits from aviation, and 1.6 million jobs in our aviation and tourism industries rely on meaningful restart, not to mention the many millions of jobs across the economy that are enabled by air connectivity.

If the Government is serious about being a Global Britain, serious about levelling up, they have to get this right.

Baroness McGregor-Smith chairs the Airport Operators Association