UK

Covid UK: Social bubbles behind border bedlam as Heathrow staff work in ‘groups of FOUR’

Chaos at the border is partly being caused by Covid rules which see Border Force officers in Heathrow Airport working in groups of four to reduce the risk of spreading mutant variants as passengers race against the clock to enter Britain before the tough hotel quarantine regime begins. 

Arrivals today tweeted that they had joined a 500-person queue being supervised by just five customs agents. He tweeted: ‘I have been in [the] queue for 1 hour; citizens in front oh me have been for 2+’. 

Yesterday video filmed by an impatient arrival who joined a massive queue which snaked around the complex for fours showed a stretched official lose his cool and lament: ‘We have not got any more staff!’ One Border Force official told a passenger that it was taking up to 30 minutes to wave through a single person, while photos showed a line of people snaking back dozens of rows.

MailOnline understands that Border Force officers are being told to work in bubbles of four in Heathrow which are then scattered across the enormous complex to reduce the risk of spreading strains of coronavirus.

The Home Office said no staff have been furloughed, with delays at the border instead being caused by social distancing measures combined with an airport schedule that leaves groups of four agents to handle hundreds of passengers arriving from multiple countries all at once. It is unclear to what or where the officials, who sit in space-out booths, have been moved to, given they have not been furloughed and are understood to still be on the premises. 

Any decision to close e-gates is taken ‘on the ground’ by Border Force and allows Heathrow staff to check 100 per cent of forms – passports, passenger locator forms and negative Covid test results – on all arrivals. 

It can also be revealed that when passengers arrive into Britain from the 33 ‘Red List’ countries through selected ports of entry, they will be flagged on the Border Force computer system and subjected to even more checks – as well as the mandatory 10-day quarantine in government-approved hotels.  

Those who attempt to evade quarantine by providing false information face a fine of up to £10,000, and up to 10 years in prison, while those who do not book a hotel place before arriving in England face a £4,000 fine. 

One passenger wrote on Twitter that he had joined a queue of around 500 others at Heathrow – being checked by just five customs agents. He tweeted: ‘I have been in [the] queue for 1 hour; citizens in front oh me have been for 2+’

People checking in at Heathrow Airport while people race to get into Britain before tough quarantine rules start on Monday

People checking in at Heathrow Airport while people race to get into Britain before tough quarantine rules start on Monday  

Passengers arriving at Heathrow Airport in West London today as more border chaos continues

Passengers arriving at Heathrow Airport in West London today as more border chaos continues

Passengers checking in at Heathrow Airport in West London today as more border chaos continues

Passengers checking in at Heathrow Airport in West London today as more border chaos continues

People arriving at Heathrow Airport while people race to get into Britain before tough quarantine rules start on Monday

People arriving at Heathrow Airport while people race to get into Britain before tough quarantine rules start on Monday

People are in a race to beat the clock ahead of the tough new hotel quarantine regime coming into force from Monday

People are in a race to beat the clock ahead of the tough new hotel quarantine regime coming into force from Monday

MailOnline understands that Border Force officers are being told to work in bubbles of four in Heathrow which are then scattered across the enormous complex to reduce the risk of spreading strains of coronavirus

MailOnline understands that Border Force officers are being told to work in bubbles of four in Heathrow which are then scattered across the enormous complex to reduce the risk of spreading strains of coronavirus

People checking in at Heathrow Airport while people race to get into Britain before tough quarantine rules start on Monday

People checking in at Heathrow Airport while people race to get into Britain before tough quarantine rules start on Monday

People are in a race to beat the clock ahead of the tough new hotel quarantine regime coming into force from Monday

People are in a race to beat the clock ahead of the tough new hotel quarantine regime coming into force from Monday

People checking in at Heathrow Airport while people race to get into Britain before tough quarantine rules start on Monday

People checking in at Heathrow Airport while people race to get into Britain before tough quarantine rules start on Monday

MailOnline understands that Border Force officers are being told to work in bubbles of four in Heathrow which are then scattered across the enormous complex to reduce the risk of spreading strains of coronavirus

MailOnline understands that Border Force officers are being told to work in bubbles of four in Heathrow which are then scattered across the enormous complex to reduce the risk of spreading strains of coronavirus

MailOnline understands that Border Force officers are being told to work in bubbles of four in Heathrow

MailOnline understands that Border Force officers are being told to work in bubbles of four in Heathrow

Travellers from Covid hotspots will only be allowed into England via one of five airports 

Travellers from countries on the banned list can only arrive into one of five airports in England when new rules come in next week.

UK nationals or residents returning from 33 ‘red list’ countries will be required to spend 10 days in a Government-designated hotel from Monday.

Guidance for those who have to quarantine in hotels was published on Thursday and states that anyone with a booking that brings them to a different ‘port of entry’ from February 15 must change it to one of those specified.

The accepted entry points from red list countries are: Heathrow Airport, Gatwick Airport, London City Airport, Birmingham Airport and Farnborough Airfield.

Notable absences on the list include Manchester Airport – which is the UK’s second busiest airport after Heathrow. Luton and Stansted have also been excluded. 

Farnborough Airport – which is included on the approved list – is a private airport catering mostly for business passengers and has around 30,000 movements each year. 

The Home Office denied claims that the West London airport is understaffed, but admitted that Border Force officials are required to follow government guidelines on self-isolation in the event they test positive for Covid-19 or share a residence with someone who has tested positive. 

A Heathrow Spokesperson said: ‘We warned last year that Border Force was consistently failing to meet its 45-minute queue standard. While our teams are on hand to support Border Force, it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure there are the right processes and resource in place.’ 

Yesterday the massive wait was blamed on a scramble from passengers to avoid the beefed-up border controls the Government is introducing from Monday, with 23-year-old Dylan Carter telling MailOnline: ‘It’s absolute bedlam. They’ve been stuck in queues for four hours. Officers have been shouting at the crowds saying things like ‘you chose to travel’.’ 

A video showed an irritated border guard berate one of the impatient arrivals, suggesting that the huge queue was due to a shortage of staff forced to isolate.

The footage appears to show the male official fume: ‘We have not got any more staff! We have staff isolating, we have staff off with Covid and we have had two staff die with Covid! So forgive us for not being understanding!’

A separate clip shows his colleague sternly telling an arrival that social distancing was compounding the hold-up.

The official seems to say: ‘It’s taking anything to 30 minutes to deal with one single person. Unfortunately, border force staff are not immune to Covid either so we… have to work in bubbles.

‘If you choose to stand close to someone, that’s up to you, but we have to socially distance. It takes time to do things, so please be patient.’ 

Nick Jariwalla, Director of Border Force at Heathrow, said: ‘We are in a global health pandemic which is why every traveller is subject to enhanced monitoring at UK airports in line with the public health measures at the border. 

‘Every airport across the UK has a responsibility to comply with social distancing and Covid measures on site.

‘We have maintained staffing levels at Heathrow throughout the pandemic, however, due to social bubbles for our staff, it may appear that there are smaller numbers of people at the desks than passengers may expect. 

‘In reality, arrivals and Border Force officers are separated into zones so they can continue to process passengers while ensuring they are kept safe and work in a Covid-secure environment.

‘People should not be travelling unless absolutely necessary and every essential check from pre-departure testing, to the Passenger Locator Form and the suspension of travel routes is to strengthen our borders and prevent the spread of coronavirus into the UK and we aim to check 100 per cent of forms.’ 

From Monday arrivals from a ‘red list’ of 33 countries – who will only be allowed to fly into one of five airports – will be expected pay £1,750 to quarantine for 10 full days (11 nights) in designated hotels.  

Footage shows one border force official telling an impatient passenger it was taking up to 30 minutes to waive through a single person

Footage shows one border force official telling an impatient passenger it was taking up to 30 minutes to waive through a single person

Days before a tough hotel quarantine regime is enforced, Heathrow Airport was swamped with passengers trying to enter the UK

Days before a tough hotel quarantine regime is enforced, Heathrow Airport was swamped with passengers trying to enter the UK

Pictures show a line of visibly frustrated arrivals snaking back dozens of rows, while some slump on the floor and take off their masks

Pictures show a line of visibly frustrated arrivals snaking back dozens of rows, while some slump on the floor and take off their masks

Arrivals at the border described a scene of 'absolute bedlam' as they lingered in queues for more than four hours while stretched officials lost their cool and lamented: 'We have not got any more staff!'

Arrivals at the border described a scene of ‘absolute bedlam’ as they lingered in queues for more than four hours while stretched officials lost their cool and lamented: ‘We have not got any more staff!’

The Government's hotel quarantine website launched this afternoon - but passengers looking to return to Britain next week are facing problems using the website already

The Government’s hotel quarantine website launched this afternoon – but passengers looking to return to Britain next week are facing problems using the website already 

Minutes after going live, the quarantine hotel website was taken down by developers who told visitors they were carrying out 'some maintenance'

Minutes after going live, the quarantine hotel website was taken down by developers who told visitors they were carrying out ‘some maintenance’

Heathrow Airport appeared busy this morning as passengers were seen flooding back into Britain. Pictured: People wait at the International Arrivals area of Heathrow Airport

Heathrow Airport appeared busy this morning as passengers were seen flooding back into Britain. Pictured: People wait at the International Arrivals area of Heathrow Airport

Travellers who don’t book a hotel quarantine place face a £4,000 fine 

Travellers arriving in England from 33 ‘red list’ countries who don’t pre-book a space at a quarantine hotel face a £4,000 fine – and will still have to pay the cost of their stay.

Arrivals the Covid hotspots will have to pay £1,750 to quarantine for 10 full days (11 nights) in designated hotels from Monday.

The package includes the costs of transport from the port of arrival to the designated hotel, food, accommodation, security, other essential services and testing.

But the government warns those who have not arranged a quarantine package prior to their arrival in England, ‘face a penalty of up to £4,000 and will still have to pay for your quarantine package on arrival’.

The costs for the 11 night stay, including food, drink and transfers, are £1,750 for one adult in one room, with a £650 additional rate for 1 adult (or child over 12) and a £325 rate for a child aged 5–12.

Meanwhile, providing false or deliberately misleading information when filling out your passenger locator form is an offence punishable by imprisonment.

The Government warns that you could be fined up to £10,000, imprisoned for up to 10 years, or both, if you do not provide accurate details about the countries you have visited in the 10 days before you arrived in the UK. 

But the regime was thrown into chaos as its booking website crashed minutes into its launch, while travellers were not allowed to reserve rooms for the first two days. Searches at Birmingham, Glasgow and Heathrow airports showed they weren’t ‘any applicable hotels’ for passengers to stay in.

The Government is already thought to have contracted 16 hotels to take part in the scheme, with the £50-a-night Thistle near Heathrow believed to be one of them.

The new booking website asks people to state the airport they are landing at, along with the date and the number of people arriving.  It then lists what is included in the £1,750 quarantine package, such as food, drinks, transfers, security costs and two Covid tests.

The website also informs visitors that there is a £650 surcharge for an extra adult in the same room, and a £325 charge for children aged between 5 and 12. 

However, minutes after going live, the new website was taken down, with an error message telling visitors developers were carrying out ‘some maintenance’. The website does appear to be working for some visitors.  

A Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) spokesperson said the problem was a ‘minor technical issue’ and that the website was ‘currently undergoing maintenance’.

The spokesperson said: ‘Rooms are available from Monday 15 February and travellers will be able to book through the site imminently.’ 

However Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds slammed the launch blunder and said ministers must ‘act urgently’ to get it back up and running.

‘It is extremely worrying that even the limited hotel quarantine booking system is showing signs of failing from the outset,’ he said.

‘Over a year into this pandemic and 50 days on from the discovery of the South African strain, there are no excuses for yet more Government incompetence in the introduction of hotel quarantine.’  

Meanwhile the Government issued more advice on its quarantine hotel scheme. The guidance states that any traveller wishing to leave their room for exercise will only be allowed with special permission from hotel staff or security and is ‘not guaranteed’.

The Government yesterday published a list of five airports in England that travellers from red list countries must fly to under the quarantine rules.

The accepted entry points from red list countries are: Heathrow Airport, Gatwick Airport, London City Airport, Birmingham Airport and Farnborough Airfield.

Notable absences on the list include Manchester Airport – which is the UK’s second busiest airport after Heathrow. Luton and Stansted have also been excluded. 

Farnborough Airport – which is included on the approved list – is a private airport catering mostly for business passengers and has around 30,000 movements each year.  

It comes as Health Secretary Matt Hancock this week unveiled England’s new quarantine programme for Britons arriving home from Covid hotspots abroad.   

Heathrow Airport chiefs warned that unless there is a way to revive the travel industry soon thousands more jobs will be lost. Pictured: Long queues of people at the check-in desks at Heathrow Airport

Heathrow Airport chiefs warned that unless there is a way to revive the travel industry soon thousands more jobs will be lost. Pictured: Long queues of people at the check-in desks at Heathrow Airport

The measures are aimed at stopping Covid variants discovered in countries such as Sotuh Africa and Brazil taking hold in the UK. 

Meanwhile, Heathrow Airport chiefs warned that unless there is a way to revive the travel industry soon, thousands more jobs will be lost.

Bosses at the London airport fear that once the quarantine rules are introduced on Monday only the ‘desperate and wealthy’ will be flying. 

Ahead of the new measures being introduced, face mask wearing passengers pushing large trolleys of luggage were seen streaming through the arrivals area at Heathrow.

A large group of people were also seen waiting at the arrivals area waiting for passengers, while there were queues at departures as people checked-in for flights leaving the UK.

The arrivals landed in Heathrow, as Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer visited the busy London airport, where he delivered a scathing attack on the Government’s quarantine scheme.  

An estimated 10,000 travellers arriving in the UK from ‘higher-risk countries’ every day will avoid hotel quarantine, Labour warns.

‘I don’t think anybody would argue that’s a system that’s going to work,’ Sir Keir said.

The Labour analysis is based on the number of people travelling from countries where the South African or Brazilian coronavirus variants are circulating but which are not on the Government’s red list. This includes locations such as France, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands.  

Speaking to reports during his visit to the airport, he said: ‘Our concern isn’t their preparations, because they’re getting on with that.

‘Our concern is that we now know that there are variants in countries that aren’t on the red list. So this partial approach by the Government isn’t going to work. 

The arrivals landed in Heathrow, as Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (pictured) visited the busy London airport, where he delivered a scathing attack on the Government's quarantine scheme

The arrivals landed in Heathrow, as Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (pictured) visited the busy London airport, where he delivered a scathing attack on the Government’s quarantine scheme

Sir Keir, pictured during a visit to Heathrow Airport, also warned the Government not to give 'mixed messages' on the possibility of foreign holidays this summer

Sir Keir, pictured during a visit to Heathrow Airport, also warned the Government not to give ‘mixed messages’ on the possibility of foreign holidays this summer

‘We are at this crucial stage now where it’s a race between the vaccine and variants, and the only way through this is to buy time by having a comprehensive system of quarantine in hotels, wherever you come from.’

The Labour leader, who is planning a holiday in Devon in August ‘subject to the restrictions’, also warned the Government not to give ‘mixed messages’ on the possibility of foreign holidays this summer.

It comes as Mr Hancock insisted ministers are ‘doing everything we can’ to make sure people can go on holidays this summer – but admitted there is no guarantee of success.

The Health Secretary confirmed that he has already booked a trip to Cornwall, despite Grant Shapps sparking fury yesterday by saying Britons should not plan trips ‘domestically or internationally’.

However, Mr Hancock risked fuelling Tory MP frustration further by insisting that even though the vaccine rollout has surged ahead the situation is ‘uncertain’ with mutant coronavirus strains running riot.

‘What we have all been saying is we will do everything we can to make sure that people can have a holiday but these are uncertain times,’ Mr Hancock said in a round of interviews this morning. 

‘That is something people understand – especially after the last year, people really get that.’

Mr Hancock also insisted he made ‘no apology’ for his bloodcurdling threat of 10 years in jail for travellers to the UK who lie about visiting high-risk ‘red list’ countries.  

Mr Shapps’ blunt comments sparked a day of chaos, with Downing Street distancing itself from his views at lunchtime, saying it was a ‘choice for individuals’.

But Boris Johnson, who earlier this month said he was ‘optimistic’ about the prospect of summer holidays, then echoed his minister’s gloomy line at a Downing Street press conference.

He warned it was ‘just too early for people to be certain about what we will be able to do this summer’. 

Despite the cautious message from the PM, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden are working on packages to promote holidays in the UK. 

One senior Tory said: ‘We are in danger of making ‘holiday’ a dirty word when it should be exactly the sort of aspirational thing we are celebrating.’ 

Meanwhile, scientists have voiced scepticism about whether it will be possible to ease the government’s extreme border crackdown anytime soon.

Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, said booking a holiday now is ‘one hell of a gamble’.

And Professor Devi Sridhar warned that sacrificing foreign holidays was likely to be the price for easing the lockdown in the UK. 

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