More crowded scenes at Heathrow as airport chiefs say social distancing is 'impossible'

23 January 2021, 13:52 | Updated: 23 January 2021, 16:05

There were long queues at the Heathrow border control on Saturday morning.
There were long queues at the Heathrow border control on Saturday morning. Picture: ITV Good Morning Britain

By Joe Cook

Heathrow Airport has defended a lack of social distancing after pictures shared on social media showed hundreds of passengers queuing in close proximity at the border.

There is a growing row over who is responsible, with Heathrow claiming Border Force should manage queues in immigration halls, while the Home Office say it is the responsibility of airport bosses to enforce social distancing.

Heathrow has said that with social distancing in place, a queue for just one aircraft would stretch to over 1km in length.

One photo, uploaded by senior diplomat Sir Peter Westmacott on Friday, appeared to show hundreds of people queuing for passport control, with some clearly not wearing their masks correctly.

Similar images posted by journalists on Saturday morning showed long queues, with some claiming there were just three border force officials on hand to deal with passengers.

Read more: Hotel quarantine plan to be discussed by ministers - but how would it work?

Read more: Countries consider tougher restrictions on UK due to new Covid-19 variant

Passengers at Heathrow have complained of long waits at border control with little social distancting.
Passengers at Heathrow have complained of long waits at border control with little social distancting. Picture: Pia Josephson

Responding to the images, Shadow Health Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds, called on the government to "get a grip" of the situation.

He said: "The Conservatives' indecision and incompetence has left holes in our country's defences. There's no clear strategy in place and they are lurching from one crisis to another.

"The scenes at airports are incredibly worrying, with no social distancing and clearly risking transmission of yet more strains of this awful virus. Ministers need to get a grip to protect our country's health."

The government has said it is “ultimately up to individual airports to ensure social distancing on site".

Read more: Environment Secretary: It's not the right time to close UK borders

Read more: Police officers injured breaking up 200 person covid rule-breaker party in west London

A Home Office spokeswoman rejected the suggestion that a lack of border officials was causing the queues, telling the Daily Mail: “Border Force has the necessary staff needed to fulfil its vital function of keeping the border secure and protecting the public.”

“Even with the increased Border Force spot checks on arrival, with passengers liable for a fine of £500 for failing to comply with the new rules, the vast majority of people have been moving through the UK border in good time.”

There have also been complaints over a lack of social distancing at check-in, despite airports being much less busy than normal.
There have also been complaints over a lack of social distancing at check-in, despite airports being much less busy than normal. Picture: M Jjunju
Images posted on social media showed little social distancing despite a largely empty airport.
Images posted online showed little social distancing at checkin despite a largely empty airport. Picture: M Jjunju

However, appearing to contradict the claims from the Home Office, Heathrow told those complaining on Twitter: “We are aware of the queues in immigration and are working with Border Force towards reducing this as soon as possible.

“Border Force is currently experiencing some delays as they ensure passenger compliance with the UK Government’s latest travel requirements.”

The airport has also defended its Covid measures, tweeting: “We have signage throughout the airport reminding passengers to socially distance, however, we appreciate this isn't always possible at every point of the journey which is why face coverings are compulsory, as they help to reduce the risk of transmission at the airport.”

Read more: Sadiq Khan calls for airport quarantine hotels for people arriving in UK

Read more: 'Too early' for Brits to book summer holidays, Dominic Raab tells LBC

A Heathrow spokesperson added: “We've been clear since last May really that social distancing in an airport environment isn't really possible.

"To put that in context, if you had one aircraft of let's say 300 people, you'd need a queue about 1km long to socially distance just one aircraft, which is why last summer we mandated face coverings in the airport."

They added that they have "Covid marshals to enforce social distancing as much as possible" and other measures in place to combat the spread of the virus.

However, amidst concern over passengers travelling to the UK potentially bringing in new variants of Covid-19, the government may introduce strengthened border control measures.

Ministers are set to meet on Monday to discuss plans for passengers entering the country to be forced to quarantine in hotels for 10 days, rather than at home, as is now the case.