It is estimated that between 80,000-100,000 people are still arriving into the UK every single week. Given that non-essential travel is banned, that figure might surprise you. But it illustrates just how much essential travel needs to take place to keep large parts of our economy ticking over.
It also raises doubts about the feasibility of the Government’s proposal to quarantine arrivals in Covid-secure hotels over fears about new variants.
Where are all these people coming from?
Between January 5-12, according to data shared by analytics firm Cirium and travel consultants the PC Agency, 227 flights came to Britain from Spain, making it the largest source of arrivals during the current lockdown.
More than 100 flights originated from five other countries – the Netherlands (198), the US (177), Poland (128), Romania (106) and the UAE (105) – and more than 50 flights came from Portugal (87), Italy (81), Germany (71), France (67), Qatar (62).
Between 5th-12th Jan, scheduled passenger flights arriving in UK were from: Spain (227), Netherlands (198), United States (177), Poland (128), Romania (106), UAE (105), Portugal (87), Italy (81), Germany (71), France (67), Qatar (62). Data from @cirium @ThePCAgency
— Paul Charles (@PPaulCharles) January 23, 2021
A quick glance at the arrivals board for Heathrow shows that, in the next hour alone, nine flights are arriving from a plethora of foreign cities:
Later on, we’ll welcome services from Doha, Cincinnati, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo, Shanghai and Seoul, among others.
The likes of Dubai, Doha and Abu Dhabi are major transfer hubs, so will be bringing arrivals from further afield, such as Australia.
The presence of Poland and Romania among the top source markets appears indicative of the large number of nationals from those countries now living and working in the UK.
Once you add in domestic flights, Heathrow’s total number of scheduled arrivals stands at 150 for January 25 (although a couple of dozen have been cancelled at short notice). It’s more than you might expect, but far less than a typical Monday. Heathrow is currently only using one of its two runways, such is the fall in passengers. Around 600 flights would be turning up on a normal pre-pandemic day.
The situation at Gatwick is rather more bleak, with only four arrivals due today (from Kiev, Riga, Madrid and Dublin), while the UK’s regional airports are largely deserted.
— Flightradar24 (@flightradar24) January 8, 2021
Who is still travelling?
The lockdown rules dictate that only those with a “reasonable excuse” can board a flight (or, indeed, leave their home). This includes work, but also exercise, worship, house purchases, waste disposal, collecting food, charitable activities, providing emergency assistance, accessing public services and attending weddings and funerals, among others. I dare say that a few of the arrivals at Heathrow this week will be returning from a wedding or funeral, but the vast majority of people (one must assume) will be travelling for work. This includes your classic business suits, but also elite sports stars (some of the England cricket team will fly back from Sri Lanka shortly), journalists covering overseas events, and even Instagram influencers returning from a selfie assignment in Dubai (great work if you can get it).
A smaller number will be returning to the country having left before the latest lockdown. Until January 4, the tier system had been in place for more than a month, and international travel was allowed for everyone living in tiers 1, 2 and 3.
It’s also safe to assume that a few rulebreakers will be heading abroad for leisure under the pretenses of “essential” travel.
— Flightradar24 (@flightradar24) January 24, 2021
What safety checks are in place?
All arrivals from abroad must present evidence of a negative Covid-19 test, taken in the previous 72 hours. Since the suspension of the travel corridors scheme, they must also self-isolate for 10 days unless you have a job that makes you exempt. The isolation period can be reduced to as little as five days if you take another test.
What’s Heathrow like right now?
Pretty empty, the occasional queue at border control notwithstanding. An anonymous reader got in touch to describe the situation on Sunday after a flight back from Europe.
“We arrived back at Heathrow on Sunday. Firstly we got held for 20-30 minutes on the plane (could have been the snow). Then we got to border control. I was in the international queue with my wife, who is a foreign national. Then a super-long British queue suddenly developed with probably four flights coming in at once.
“For the next 45 minutes it looked like there was nobody working border control on international passports and very few officers on the UK lane. The police would stand around chatting, sometimes an officer would come and check one passport then leave again. Probably half of the few people who were checked in that time were sent to sit in a special group where they had to wait for further checks. Insofar as the police were doing anything it seemed to concern that group.
“Then suddenly, after 45 minutes, the entire British queue just got let through the e-gates as normal. They were all out in 10 minutes and foreign checks went back to the speed you’d expect before Covid. They checked our Covid tests and the Passenger Locator Forms and it was very quick and friendly, which I thought made it even more strange they couldn’t do it earlier.
“The rest of the airport was empty, the queue is literally just the border and all because the police chose to handle it that way for some reason. Not to speculate on why they did it like that during a pandemic but bloody strange. And then no other flights arrived afterwards.”
Watch: Should I book a holiday in 2021?