Shambles at Heathrow – Latest Update

Heathrow Queues – Source: Peter Westmacott Getty Images in Metro

Ed: Update 14 February 2021 –
Below I’ve added another response from the MPs office which was totally inadequate and my friend’s reply to that.

A friend flew into Heathrow last week prepared for rigorous and socially distanced processing by the UK Border Force. What he found was an understaffed passport control forcing travellers to spend two hours in close proximity. When he eventually got to the desk, the checks were perfunctory.

So my friend wrote to his MP, Sir Geoffrey Clifton Brown (The Cotswolds), asking him to investigate. The reply, from Sir Geoffrey’s assistant, came back full of boilerplate government policy on returning travellers. He did not even offer to investigate. All he could say was that Sir Geoffrey was “hopeful that this is not the norm”.

I quote the correspondence in full below.

Similar issues are reported in the Metro newspaper.

Initial email:

Dear Sir Geoffrey,

On Friday 5th February, I returned from Costa Rica, via Madrid, arriving at Heathrow at 17:20.

On the day before my departure from Costa Rica, I obtained a negative COVID-19 test from a clinic in San José. I wore a mask throughout both flights and the stopover in Madrid.

Having taken all these precautions, I then found myself standing in the passport examination hall at Terminal 5 with at least 200 people (the contents of a full Airbus A330-950) for at least 2 hours while waiting to have my passport and other documents checked. As arrangements for social distancing were totally inadequate, this period provided an admirable opportunity for anyone infected to spread the COVID-19 virus. in the 2 hours, there were several periods during which there were NO – and I repeat, NO UK Border Force officers checking documents. As an added irony, we were surrounded by posters saying “Welcome to GREAT Britain”. Obviously this greatness does not extend to the size of the UK Border Force.

Not being a habitual overseas traveller, I have no idea whether this state of affairs is typical of the situation at Heathrow or the other UK international airports, so I would appreciate your enquiring into average waiting times at passport control. In view of your Government’s alleged intention to tighten up on the spread of the COVID-19 virus through hotel quarantine, it seems that the UK Border Force is working to ensure that these precautions are extremely necessary, if waiting times have been this high over the whole period of the pandemic.

Yours sincerely,
[Name provided]

Response from Sir Geoffrey’s office:

Dear [Name provided],

Thank you for contacting me about your concerns with the health measures at the UK border.

I am troubled by the fact that there are still too many people coming in and out of the UK each day. The rules are now very clear, people across the UK should be staying at home unless they have a valid reason to leave. It is illegal to leave home to travel abroad for leisure purposes.

A number of robust measures are in place at the UK border. The Government has temporarily closed all travel corridors and require anyone coming to this country to have proof of a negative Coronavirus test taken in the 72 hours before leaving. In addition, anyone coming into the UK must also complete a Passenger Locator Form which must be checked before they board, and then quarantine on arrival for ten days. It is important to remember that the UK has been refusing entry to non-UK residents from red list countries which are already subject to a UK travel ban.

However, it is becoming increasingly important that the UK’s world-leading vaccination programme must not be put at risk by a new variant of the virus being transmitted from someone coming into the UK. It is therefore necessary for further action to minimise travel across international borders to reduce the risk of Coronavirus transmission.

The key priority must now be to reduce passenger flow and I therefore welcome the announcement of strengthened action to achieve this. Under the new measures, anyone who wishes to travel out of the UK must declare a reason for travel. If an individual does not have a valid reason, they will be directed to return home and may face a fine. The reason for travel will be checked by carriers before departure. In addition, there will be increased police enforcement as a result of increased police presence at ports and airports.

It will also be the case that those seeking to enter the UK face changes too. I welcome the announcement of managed isolation in hotels. This system will apply to those arriving from countries with imposed international travel bans and who cannot be refused entry because they are British citizens. These individuals will be required to isolate for 10 days without exception. I also very much welcome that the police are carrying out more physical checks at addresses to ensure people are self-isolating.

I understand that all measures will be kept under review and I will continue to monitor the situation at the border very closely.

I understand you feel that your personal experience of measures at the airport and with UK Border Force were in adequate, however I am hopeful this is not the norm and I am confident that the Government are tightening up restrictions further in this regard.

Kind regards,
[Name provided]

on behalf of
Sir Geoffrey Clifton Brown

My friend’s reply to that:

Dear [Name provided],

Thank you for your swift reply.

Having recently prepared for and passed through the UK Borders system, I am well aware of a greater part of the precautions being taken and also of those which are under consideration, so it was not necessary to recite all these to me as this gives the appearance of placating me with a “cut and paste” response which I’m sure you did not intend.

I do, however, find the fact that you are “hopeful that this is not the norm and […] confident that the Government are tightening up restrictions further in this regard.” more than a little concerning as without further enquiry you can have no basis for such optimism. Are you aware of any proposals to increase UK Border Force staff to handle all these new requirements? If not, then your hope may not be fulfilled and your confidence in the Government to enforce the tightening-up of restrictions misplaced. As the Border Force officer, when he turned up, was under great pressure to examine my documents in the shortest possible time, this gave him little opportunity to check that my COVID-19 test result was genuine and that my Passenger Locator form contained relevant information. Without giving officers sufficient time for checking, the restrictions may be ineffective. Lack of checking may even allow incoming passengers from ‘red-listed’ countries to evade the ‘hotel quarantine” system.

[Name provided]

Second Response from Sir Geoffrey’s office:

Dear [Name provided],

Thank you for your further correspondence.

I am not aware of specific details regarding Border Force at the airports but I will raise your concerns with ministers.

I should nonetheless point out the fact that the Government have put in place very strong deterrents for those who put others at risk by ignoring the rules regarding hotel quarantining.

I appreciate you are concerned that public health is being put at risk by those breaking regulations. The police aim to police with consent, and to educate the public about new laws. However, I understand the police now take the view that as restrictions of one sort or another have been in place for many months, they should take enforcement action more quickly than at the start of the pandemic. Individual judgement, will of course, continue to be required. However, the national police body which helps co-ordinate operational matters says it has been guiding officers to move more quickly towards issuing fines.

I understand that those who refuse to pay fixed penalty notices may face court action and a possible criminal record.

I hope the latest tightening of measures will reassure you.”

[Name provided]

My friend’s further reply:

“Dear [Name provided],

My concern is NOT that the public is being put at risk by people breaking regulations. My concern is that the public is being put at risk by being held in queues at airports because of the lack of UK Border Force officers. I suggest that you read what I actually said rather than what fits your party’s position. Such errors make Sir Geoffrey appear severely out of touch and unresponsive, which I’m sure you would not want to do.

[Name provided]

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