The all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on coronavirus has warned that new Covid-19 variants could enter the UK unless tighter controls are imposed to separate arrivals from high-risk “red list” countries from other travellers.
The warning came after a union representing border staff warned that the authorities were losing track of who is entering Britain with the virus, in the wake of a decision to order officers not to check the coronavirus status of incoming passengers.
Lucy Moreton, professional officer of the Immigration Services Union, said that while airlines, Eurostar and ferry operators are required to check passengers have tested negative for Covid-19, there is no system in place to confirm they are doing so.
Border Force was instructed to stop checking the Covid status of passengers from green or amber-list nations on 19 July, when most lockdown restrictions were lifted in England. This means there is also no official check on whether these travellers have booked Covid tests or filled in passenger locator forms to say where in the UK they will isolate if necessary, she said.
And while there is a dedicated terminal at Heathrow Airport for planes arriving direct from red-list states, passengers from green and amber-list countries are still mixing with people who started their journey in a red area but changed planes in a country classified as lower-risk, said Ms Moreton.
Long queues are also reported to be developing at airports as a result of the absence of Border Force staff who have caught Covid or been “pinged” as a contact of someone testing positive.
Responding to the ISU’s warnings, coronavirus APPG vice-chair and Green MP Caroline Lucas said: “The government’s border policy is leading to chaotic scenes at UK airports and leaving the country dangerously exposed to new variants.
“The surge in the Delta variant was a direct result of the failure to secure our borders, yet ministers are still repeating the same mistakes.
“Urgent action is needed to prevent an even more dangerous variant taking root in the UK, including sequencing positive tests and separating all red list arrivals.”
A recent inquiry by the APPG heard that airports were becoming a “breeding ground” for the virus because of travellers from different countries mingling in queues.
This prompted a call in May from the group for the government to impose stricter checks at borders and curbs on international travel to prevent Covid cases and new variants being imported into the UK.
The APPG, backed by around 60 MPs, warned last month that as travel reopened, there has been a “staggering” reduction in the proportion of positive tests being sequenced to check for new variants.
Figures obtained from the House of Commons Library suggested that just 13 per cent of positive test results from red list countries were sequenced for new variants in the three weeks to 30th June, compared to 65 per cent in March. From amber-list countries, the proportion of positive results sequenced was an estimated 3 per cent compared to 61 per cent in March.
A overnment spokesperson said: “As the public would expect, our top priority is to protect public health and the vaccination rollout.
“Our traffic light system allows us to cautiously reopen international travel while managing the risk of imported variants. We constant monitor all the latest scientific data and won’t hesitate to act quickly if the data shows that countries risk ratings have changed.
“We’ve always said that travel will be different this year, and people should expect additional checks and longer queues, to help keep us safe. We are working hard to cut delays by increasing Border Force staff, updating technology so Border Force officers can check passengers have completed their locator form by scanning their passport, and rolling out e-gate upgrades, with many already in operation across airports.”