Some years ago I went to a stand-up comedy night at Camden Lock, in North London, in aid of the charity Jewish Care.
Biggest laugh of the evening greeted a routine by the multi-talented Bradley Walsh, then starting out on his road to stardom.
It went something like: ‘I’m thrilled to be taking part in a gig for Jewish Care. I’ve just got back from a week’s holiday in Israel.
‘Well, I say a week. Actually, I spent 48 hours in Eilat and five days answering questions at the airport.’
His knowing reference to the rigorous security precautions on the Israeli airline El Al brought the house down. And this was before the terrorist attacks on 9/11 turned air travel into a jobsworth’s paradise.
With Israel expected to open up to vaccinated British tourists next months, Bradley could update his shtick. ‘I’ve just flown in from Tel Aviv. Took me 12 hours — five on the plane and another seven queuing at Heathrow to get back into Britain.’
Footage posted online on Monday afternoon shows a woman lying on the floor of Heathrow Airport being tended to by staff – as many more passengers wait to be cleared through the border
This time, however, I guarantee you that no one would find it remotely funny. The delays in the arrivals hall at Heathrow are way beyond a joke.
Pictures posted online show travellers forced to queue for hours on end at Border Control. The Commons transport committee has been told that waits of between two and six hours are routine. One woman collapsed from exhaustion after a seven-hour ordeal.
The bottlenecks have been caused by the need for staff to check paperwork, including a ‘passenger locator’ form and proof of a negative Covid test. Scrutiny was stepped up after criticism that people arriving from all over the world were being waved through without proper screening.
And according to Chris Garton, who describes himself as ‘chief solutions officer’ at Heathrow, the chaos will only get worse once rules governing international leisure flights are relaxed from May 17.
Only 20 of the 40 passport control desks at Terminal 2 are open because of the need for social distancing — something completely absent in the queues snaking around the arrivals area.
Border Control insists it has the ‘right level’ of staff on duty. It’s the complicated, overly bureaucratic system foisted on passengers by the Government that is the problem.
Electronic arrivals gates have been taken out of service because locator forms, which must be filled in by all those entering the country, haven’t been digitised. A new ‘traffic light’ system being introduced next month is expected only to add to the disruption.
In normal times, it takes just two minutes to clear immigration. That’s now risen to a minimum of 40 if there is a problem with a passenger’s documentation.
The situation is aggravated by travellers arriving with incomplete forms and, in some cases, fake Covid certificates.
Ministers, typically, have resorted to heavy-handed punishments of up to £10,000 and ten years in prison for non-compliance.
Passengers have expressed their anger over the long delays in the arrivals hall of Heathrow. Some passengers have had to wait for up to six hours to clear the border due to a shortage of Border Force staff
Needless to say, these penalties have been enforced with bovine insensitivity. Film posted online yesterday shows police in Liverpool using a battering ram to smash down the front door of a football coach, Mathew Owens, who allegedly refused to lockdown in a hotel after returning from Abu Dhabi. Mr Owens claims he was following advice given before he flew home.
Whoever’s in the right here, expect more raids on private property. The Government is giving £90 million to a commercial company to carry out up to 10,000 checks a day on travellers supposed to be self-isolating.
All this at a time when inoculations are racing ahead and we’re nearing the fabled herd immunity.
That’s what makes the madness at Heathrow all the more infuriating. Despite the undoubted success of the vaccine programme, the Government still won’t take its foot off our windpipe.
We’re supposed to be pathetically grateful for the ‘freedoms’ we are now being granted, as of this week. But even though some restrictions have been lifted, we’re still being subjected to myriad rules and regulations designed primarily to give the Warden Hodges class something to do.
Council officials are roaming pub gardens insisting on drinkers wearing masks outdoors and counting the number of shoppers waiting outside recently reopened shops so they can enforce an arbitrary limit on the length of queues. Far too many businesses, in hospitality especially, are going bankrupt for no good reason. Caution has tipped over into cowardice.
Of all the industries crippled by lockdown, travel has been among the hardest hit. The airlines are on their knees, yet at every turn they are frustrated by Government dogma. The chaos at Heathrow comes with passenger levels at little more than between ten and 15 per cent of normal. Things will only get worse from mid-May.
As busy Terminal 2 this week where people approaching the UK border at Heathrow Airport are facing waits of up to six hours for Border Force officials to check their documentation about their Covid-19 status
A busy terminal 2 arrivals hall at London Heathrow Airport today
Tory MP Steve Baker, a prominent lockdown sceptic, calls the airport queues a ‘moral outrage’ verging on ‘dystopian’. He’s not wrong. That’s a description which could equally be applied to much of the handling of this pandemic, vaccine rollout excepted.
Don’t bank, either, on all or even many of these new rules being scrapped in the unlikely event of zero-Covid. We’ll still be forced to wear masks, carry vaccine certificates and fill in ‘locator’ forms for years to come.
Twenty years after 9/11, air travel is a nightmare to be endured, not enjoyed. Getting into Fort Knox is a piece of pickle compared to boarding a plane.
Belts off, shoes off, laptops out, no liquids, no nail scissors, pat-downs, perm your own pet hate. Short of compulsory colonoscopies at check-in, airline security couldn’t be more intrusive.
Those halcyon days when Bradley Walsh could raise a laugh about being questioned for five days at the airport are long gone. These days, it’s the ‘new normal’.
Lesser of two weevils
We haven’t been down to Creepy-Crawly Corner lately, much to Gary’s disappointment. He loves drawing bugs, slugs and assorted insects.
Over the years this column has brought you news of some exotic species, including the Horrid Ground-Weaver Spider, the Whirlpool Ramshorn Snail and, my all-time fave, the Depressed River Mussel.
So I couldn’t resist a story this week about the arrival in Britain of the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug, which feeds on strawberries and is now threatening crops just in time for Wimbledon.
The bug, which emits a smell of rotting rubbish, has turned up in Essex. There have also been unconfirmed sightings in Hampshire.
Defra, the environment department, is now considering importing the stink bug’s natural predator to control numbers. Known as the Samurai Wasp, it orginates in Asia and has already been deployed successfully in New Zealand.
But I can’t help wondering which is the lesser of two weevils — the stink bug or the samurai.
Do we really want hordes of Japanese warrior wasps rampaging around the countryside, wielding their fearsome Shogun-style swords?
Gary, it’s over to you . . . Banzai!
Racist? No, he’s a soul man
A judge has ruled that older white people who sometimes use the word ‘coloured’ to describe their black fellow citizens don’t do so because they are racist. Quite the opposite, in fact. They use it out of politeness.
That doesn’t stop some people taking offence. Ryan Justin, a black cleaner at a gym in Nottingham, was outraged when his white colleague Markham Pell used the term to describe three South Asian men messing about in the basement.
Mr Justin quit his job in protest and sought compensation at an industrial tribunal. The judge threw out the claim, ruling that Mr Pell had used it, however mistakenly, so as not to cause offence. OK, so ‘coloured’ is an outdated expression. But a real racist would deploy a much more derogatory term.
I know nothing about Markham Pell, but I’d hazard a guess that he’s not a racist. My guess is he’s an old soul boy. In a photo published alongside the story this week he’s wearing a T-shirt bearing an image of the Stax record label.
And any soul fan knows that in the 1960s, Stax was a potent anti-segregationist symbol in Deep South Memphis.
Stax brought the races together. It’s a shame that half a century later, there are far too many people who would rather concentrate on ripping us apart.
Mr Pell had left the message after an incident a couple of days earlier in which three men had been misbehaving in the gym