Paul Mercer is the director of an international consultancy firm, and is a Charnwood Borough councillor.
The Government’s latest attempt to control people entering the UK from the countries on the “red list” involves directing flights from those countries to Terminal 3 at Heathrow Airport and then transporting them directly to quarantine hotels. Although this plan makes some sense, it is difficult to see how it will achieve much and may even increase the risk of transmission.
Over the past six months I have (legitimately) visited four countries, two of which are now on the red list, and I have seen the way in which the system has evolved at Heathrow. Most recently, having returned from Uganda, border force officers were dealing with arriving passengers far more effectively. In fact, arriving mid-morning the wait was less than it had been in pre-Covid days.
There are essentially three difficulties which this “red list terminal” plan fails to address.
The first is that of the 43 countries the majority do not fly directly into the UK. Passengers travelling from most of the red list countries are likely to transit through major European hubs and then fly into Heathrow on a European airline. Heathrow should have taken account of this and the present system, whereby red list passengers are weeded out of the queue, but those who have passed through “green” and “amber” hubs – from a red zone – will not have been identified.
Thus the problem that this queue system seeks to address – stopping red list passengers from mixing with those coming in from green and amber countries – is not fixed and could even worsen because it will give passengers a false sense of security.
The second problem is that regulations theoretically permit passengers transiting through red list countries to avoid going into quarantine hotels. Government guidance states that rules “could” apply but only if you “mix”, but it fails to specify what this means in practice. If, for instance, one is sitting at the front of the plane and does not come into contact with passengers from the red list country, one could credibly argue that no mixing has occurred and therefore not be sent to quarantine hotel.
Last week, while at Heathrow, I took the opportunity to ask two senior border force officers what this meant in practice. The first, a senior officer (the one with two pips), said that he had never seen this rule and complained that they were being “sent changes in the regulations virtually every day”; the second, a higher officer (one pip), likewise did not know and suggested that, perhaps, I should ask my MP for clarification.
The third problem is that dedicated terminal makes it possible to segregate some passengers from red list countries, but it may become easier for those who have transited through a non-red list country to deliberately avoid being identified. In my case, I was only asked by a congenial border force officer which countries I had visited without even looking at the entries in my passport. With some passengers having more than one passport there appears to be no obvious way to ascertain whether they had been in a red list country in the past 10 days if they have used two or more airlines.
The principal risk appears to be a concern that passengers from red list countries are mixing as they walk from the aircraft to the checking area. Unfortunately walk from many of the gates can often be more than 20 minutes, meaning that many passengers are often out of breath by the time they arrive – especially if they are concerned about long queues ahead. In the confined corridors this will only increase the chances of the virus spreading.
There is no easy solution to these issues but what is clear is that different countries are applying different standards and, in some cases, more rigorous than the UK. In Uganda, for instance, passengers can only enter the airport if their Covid test has been checked electronically, whereas for passengers leaving Britain the PCR test receives only a cursory glance at check-in. This offers the possibility of fast-tracking passengers coming in from countries which are known to have these more thorough checks.
Another change which would help identify anyone who was attempting to evade the quarantine hotel by using another passport would simply be to include a legal requirement on the “passenger locator form” to include all passports held.
The Government is never going to find the perfect solution to the challenge of preventing passengers carrying new variants of the virus arriving but the present system, and the latest changes, still do not properly help matters.