Shelagh Fogarty 1pm - 4pm
'No social distancing' at Heathrow during chaotic arrival
6 September 2020, 23:55
Much has been said about whether foreign travel is safe in the age of Covid-19: many people will jet off on holiday knowing other countries have a lower rate of infection than the UK, while others decide not to take the chance on an international flight.
People will rightly make their own minds up. All I can say based on my recent experience of a trip to Greece is that there were few times that I felt less safe than when arriving back in the UK.
We landed at Heathrow Terminal 2 and everything was running smoothly until we reached to passport control - and then the problems began.
First, the electronic passport gates did not let me through. Other people were experiencing the same problem - the staff weren’t able to say why.
It’s worth noting that my passport scanned perfectly when leaving Greece - the problem seemed to be with the UK machines.
This led to people having to join the queue to have their passports checked by an immigration official. The problem was, there were just four Border Force officers there to check many hundreds of passports, leading to big queues that were barely moving.
There was no queue management in place and no social distancing - nothing, in fact, to suggest that we are in the middle of a deadly pandemic.
People had no choice but to bunch together as they waited for half an hour or more to have their passports checked.
The vast majority were wearing masks, but the lack of immigration staff had still generated what felt like a very avoidable risk.
In the end I waited for close to half an hour, despite there only being six people in front of me when I joined the queue.
When I finally got to the front I was also surprised to see that the Border Force officers were taking everyone’s phone to look at the UK’s Passenger Locator Form, which everyone returning to, or entering, the UK has to have filled in in advance.
On leaving Greece, we were asked to show our travel documents as usual but the airport staff had systems in place to avoid touching everyone’s passport - instead asking passengers to show it to them.
Had one person in the queue at Heathrow had the virus on their hands, it would likely have been transmitted to everyone else’s via the immigration officials.
My experience of travelling during Covid was that it felt safe at almost all times.
Of course there are risks that you aren’t exposed to by staying at home - the flight being the most obvious - but it was arriving back at Heathrow that felt like one of the riskiest parts of the whole trip.
Had the number of people in the crowd in the immigration hall assembled in that proximity of their own accord, of course, it would have been illegal.
If people are going to be convinced that international travel is safe - something we need to happen for the sake of the UK economic - it is surely important that basic safety measures are in place.
From my experience there is still work to do to make sure that is the case.