Lockdown weary holidaymakers looking to escape this summer could face delays of up to ten hours at airports, a union has warned today.
Queues are already being caused by stringent checks to ensure travellers are not breaching Covid rules designed to stop mutant strains entering the UK.
But the Immigration Services Union (ISU), which represents border immigration and customs staff in the UK, is urging the government to change the system to cope with an influx of arrivals and demand when countries reopen.
The union has warned delays of around seven hours seen when travel resumed last summer could rise to ten hours in the coming weeks.
Passengers queue to enter Terminal 2 at Heathrow Airport earlier this year
TRAVEL LEADERS CRITICISE ‘CAUTIOUS’ GOVERNMENT APPROACH TO FOREIGN TRIPS
Prominent travel industry figures have lashed out at the Government over its plans to make UK travellers take coronavirus tests even when they have been fully vaccinated.
In a joint article in The Daily Telegraph, the chief executives of BA, Heathrow Airport, easyJet, Manchester Airport Group and Jet2 have criticised the Government for an ‘overabundance of caution’.
The group says it is illogical to require fully vaccinated British holidaymakers to pay £60 per person to take a PCR test when coming home from a country on the UK’s safe ‘green’ list, adding the move would jeopardise the holiday plans of millions of people.
‘Instead of taking advantage of the success of the vaccine programme the Government risks closing the UK off from the rest of the world,’ they wrote.
‘We want to be able to support a safe reopening, but if we are not prepared to accept any risk then travel will never restart and we will not be able to support UK travel and tourism businesses and supercharge the UK’s economic recovery.’
The group added: ‘Travel, even from green countries, will still require arrivals into the UK to take a ‘gold-standard’ PCR test which, until recently, were costing more than double the European average at over £100 each.’
Britain’s plan puts it out of step with the EU which, while ‘not known for rash decisions when it comes to vaccines and the precautionary principle’, is letting holidaymakers with proof of vaccination to sidestep tests and quarantine, said the group, which also said the Government’s green list of countries was expected to be disappointingly small.
Ministers are due on Thursday to decide which countries and territories will be ‘green’ – allowing quarantine-free travel – from May 17, a list expected to include Gibraltar, Malta, Israel, Iceland and possibly Portugal.
Most of Europe – including France, Spain, Greece and Italy – will be amber, The Telegraph said, requiring holidaymakers to self-isolate for 10 days on their return and take two PCR tests.
However, ministers remained hopeful most European countries would be open to green list travel by the end of June.
Waiting times have increased because of the need to thoroughly vet every travellers’ Covid paperwork, including passenger locator forms – which they fill in with contact details and information on where they’re staying – and proof of a negative test.
All arrivals, including British citizens who would normally go straight to the electronic border gates, must be spoken to by immigration officers to check they have not been through a red list country.
If officers are satisfied the travellers are telling the truth, they are allowed to use the e-gates.
If they discover an issue, such as someone failing to book two Covid tests in advance, the paperwork can take half an hour to complete.
Lucy Moreton from the ISU told The i newspaper: ‘We saw delays for seven or eight hours last summer, and with all the additional checks then we could see people waiting as long as 10 hours.
‘There’s no way around the delays at the border because Border Force officers will have to check the Covid status of all arrivals and that takes around 15 minutes per person.
‘So, people from all over the world will be mixing inside for a long time.’
Simon McNamara from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), told the i: ‘The Government has a plan, but whether they will be able to deliver it by 17 May is another thing.
‘We’re not optimistic from what we’ve seen so far. We keep asking what will change on the 17 May that will stop the queues we’re seeing and we’ve yet to be reassured that things will improve sufficiently.’
This comes as travel chiefs pile pressure on ministers to sort out the crisis at Britain’s borders in time for the restart of summer holidays abroad.
Bosses of Heathrow Airport, British Airways and Jet2 have already expressed dismay at ‘inhumane and completely avoidable’ seven-hour queues.
They called on Home Secretary Priti Patel to boost border guard numbers as there are often ‘hardly any desks manned’ at passport control.
The wider use of electronic passport gates would ensure hassle-free holidays once foreign travel resumes under the Government’s ‘traffic light’ system, the experts said.
The earliest date travel could resume is May 17.
Speaking on Wednesday, the Prime Minister maintained the UK would uphold a sensible and cautious approach to foreign travel this summer to avoid ‘an influx of disease’.
Boris Johnson said there would be ‘some opening up’ on May 17, but that reopening the country must be done in a way ‘to make sure that we don’t see the virus coming back in’ to the UK.
Mr Johnson’s cautious tone came as some MPs called for restrictions on foreign holidays to be maintained to protect the country from Covid-19 variants, and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer urged a ‘careful’ approach.
‘We do want to do some opening up on May 17 but I don’t think that the people of this country want to see an influx of disease from anywhere else,’ the Premier said.
‘I certainly don’t and we have got to be very, very tough, and we have got to be as cautious as we can, whilst we continue to open up.’
Passengers wearing face masks have their temperature taken as they queue at a British Airways check-in desk at Heathrow airport
A senior Heathrow official told MPs how more than half of arrivals are waiting two or three hours at the border, with some queuing for seven hours.
Arrivals are a fraction of what they were pre-pandemic and travel bosses fear queues could exceed even current waiting times as the ban on foreign holidays is lifted.
Sean Doyle, head of BA, said it had been working hard to ensure it can welcome customers safely but public confidence would be undermined ‘if we are not fully prepared at entry points into the UK’.
Heathrow Airport boss John Holland-Kaye said: ‘Recently, passengers arriving in this country have faced waiting times of over six hours with hardly any desks manned. This is inhumane and completely avoidable.
‘This is a wake-up call for ministers to make sure that when international travel restarts, the processes at the border are automated and every desk is manned.’
In a report published last month, the Government’s global travel taskforce pledged to ‘develop automatic validation’ of the form process so borders could flow smoothly this summer. The forms must be filled out by every passenger online before boarding a UK-bound plane, train or ship.
The report said Border Force could then make wider use of e-gates at the largest airports by summer. But travel chiefs fear this timeline is not ambitious enough.
Karen Dee, of the Airport Operators Association, said: ‘Border Force’s record of failure to deliver digitisation on time does not fill us with confidence this will be achievable.’ And Steve Heapy, head of package holiday giant Jet2, said: ‘Border Force needs to gear up for this… there’s a lot of work to do. But there’s still no meat on the bones as to how these things are going to work.’
But Border Force insiders said they are already working at ‘full pelt’. Queues are down to the ‘laborious’ checks to ensure travellers are not breaching Covid rules.