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UK Border Force staff demand tougher penalties for airlines

UK Border Force staff are demanding tougher penalties for airlines that fail to check passengers' Covid paperwork causing huge delays at airports. Even with non-essential travel banned under current rules, pictures show seven-hour queues as officials individually check thousands of passengers' Covid paperwork on arrival. Last week, a woman collapsed at the passport control desk after waiting for hours to be seen.

And, with May 17 marking an end to the government's ban on overseas holidays there are fears the delays could worsen. The Immigration Services Union - which represents Border force workers - said pressure to ensure arrivals have followed Covid travel rules should be on the airlines.

As it stands, passenger locator forms should be checked prior to boarding by airlines - who could be slapped with a £2,000 fine if they fail to do so. But countless staff miss the checks, meaning arrivals sometimes face border force officials with incorrect forms or lacking proof of a negative Covid test. This increases their contact time with officials from four minutes to between 30 and 40, the union said.

The Immigration Services Union's Lucy Moreton told The Times there are two options to rectify the passport control delay issue: 'Remove the requirement to check 100 per cent of arrivals comply with Covid requirements, inevitably increasing the risk to national Covid security. Or compel carriers to ensure that those they bring into the UK have complied with the UK's requirements.'

The International Air Transport Association urged the government to make the paper system for arrivals documents digital - because 'even with limited traffic there are already reports of lengthy waits at UK border checkpoints'.

Passengers at Gatwick airport today told MailOnline that border checks were fast - if all their documents were in check. English literature student Simon Heller, 25, who landed to return to Oxford University, said: 'It was alright to be honest. I think because I had all the documents ready it took all of four minutes to get through the queue. They checked every paper and form I needed to fill out, my test certificates and the place I was going to isolate for the next 10 days.' In reaction to the news of his native Switzerland not expected to be one of the first greenlist countries, Mr Heller joked: 'Good, 'cause I would have been angry at having to isolate now! I don't think it should be on the list yet as we pretty much have the same amount of cases as the UK with like a tenth of the population so it's still relatively high.'

Communications editor Tim Hopkins, 38, was returning home to Birmingham after working in Geneva. He said of the return process: 'It took me about two minutes to get through and was super straight forward. The police check you first when you come through, they check your passenger locator, PCR test and your two and eight day test. Then you have to go to the customs gate for the passport check. Once you're through there they don't check you again.'

Student Alexander Davis, 19, was returning to his accommodation in Leeds after visiting his parents in Geneva. He said: 'The wait was about 15 minutes so not too bad. It's okay if you come prepared like the website tells you and have all the forms ready which I did. I kind of expected it to be like this. You go to the passport check and then wait in a line before they ask you for your tests and passenger locator form. It was pretty socially distanced and there was plenty of staff to make sure it was all okay.'

Earlier this month, former head of the UK Border Force Tony Smith said the government should use technology to lighten the load on stretched officers. He urged international governments and airlines to 'show leadership' by getting together to hammer out a solution - and suggested checking people's documents before they board flights to avert clogging up the borders. He told LBC: 'This is a bit of a disaster. I managed the borders for all the Olympics, and those was the busiest we ever had in the UK, and at Heathrow - record numbers, high security. And we did work with the airlines, we worked with the airports, with worked with our colleagues. The answer is: why don't we check these things before people get onboard?

'We do it with passports, we do it with visas, if the airlines don't do that, they get fined. We need international collaboration between the airports, the airlines and governments.' Such pre-flight passenger checks could be easily managed with apps, he suggested, as a way of easing the load on border force staff. Giving a damning verdict of the current chaos, Mr Smith said: 'All we're doing is loading more and more pressure on to our hard-pressed officers at the border, asking them to do more and more things, and they're getting beaten up every day because 'we're the ones who are the problem'.'

Last week, the bosses of Heathrow Airport, British Airways and Jet2 lashed out at the 'inhumane and completely avoidable' queues. They called on Home Secretary Priti Patel to step up border guard numbers as there are often 'hardly any desks manned' at passport control. The wider use of electronic passport gates would ensure hassle-free holidays once foreign travel resumes under the government's 'traffic light' system, the experts said.

Sean Doyle, head of BA, said it had been working hard to ensure it can welcome customers safely but public confidence would be undermined 'if we are not fully prepared at entry points into the UK'. Heathrow Airport boss John Holland-Kaye said: 'Recently, passengers arriving in this country have faced waiting times of over six hours with hardly any desks manned. This is inhumane and completely avoidable. This is a wake-up call for ministers to make sure that when international travel restarts, the processes at the border are automated and every desk is manned.'

Although non-essential travel remains banned thousands are still entering the UK every day, and on May 17, the government ban on overseas holidays will lift. The British overseas territory of Gibraltar, along with Israel, Iceland and the US, will be among the nations and territories on the safe list, according to industry modelling reported by the Telegraph.

The research was carried out by Robert Boyle - the former strategy chief at British Airways. It also reveals that nearly all of Europe is either on the Government's 'amber' list, where arrivals must go into self-isolation for ten days, or the red list - where arrivals have to quarantine in hotels at a cost of £1,750. According to the new research, the other countries which will reportedly be on the green list are Malta, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland. Both Australia and New Zealand are currently closed to foreign arrivals while Iceland, Gibraltar, Israel, Malta and the United States all have heavy restrictions in place which ban holidaymakers travelling to the countries. Ireland's Government advises against non-essential travel and arrivals must quarantine for 14 days, with 'limited exceptions' according to the Foreign Office.

The research contradicts expectations from travel industry leaders that most of Europe would be on the Government's green list. The findings put Spain, Greece, Italy and Cyprus - all of which are hugely popular with British tourists - on amber because of their high coronavirus rates. However, they could still turn green by June 28 - when the Government is set to carry out a review which could see nations moved between lists. The report, which has reportedly been circulated among figures in the travel industry, ranks 52 countries based on a series of coronavirus-related statistics. These include vaccination rates, infection rates and the extent of Covid-19 variants.

The report is said to read: 'The surest case for green must be Gibraltar. It has essentially zero cases of any type and the population is fully vaccinated. Israel must be the next most likely. Again, it has vaccinated close to its entire population and case numbers are below even last year's threshold.' The report contradicts previous expectations from industry leaders that most European countries would be in the Government's quarantine-free category.

Left - Sean Doyle

Johan Lundgren, easyJet's chief executive, said when asked if he expects destinations such as France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Croatia, Cyprus and Turkey to be on the 'green' list: 'Yes, by the time we open up for travel on May 17 and if the Government continues to have the plan in place on the two-test system.'

Senior industry figures told MPs on the Transport Select Committee last week that the proposed traffic light system is 'too complex' while the overall strategy set out by ministers is 'very vague in many areas'. They also warned border control at airports is already 'unable to cope' with Covid checks despite passenger numbers being massively reduced due to the lockdown ban on non-essential international travel. They warned there will need to be a 'dramatic improvement in border performance if we are to increase passenger numbers' when flights do resume.

Meanwhile, British Airways boss Sean Doyle added the continued success of the vaccine rollout in the UK and the US could allow for a transatlantic travel corridor to be put in place. Last month, experts said London and Washington were already discussing piloting a bilateral safe travel scheme between the two countries. Mr Doyle, who was speaking at an online industry event, also said the firm would be offering £60 PCR tests to its customers amid concerns the bill charged by some testing firms of approximately £120 could price many families out of a trip abroad. His comments reflect the announcement made by testing firm Randox who said last week it would be offering £60 tests through partnering airlines in a bid to aid the sector's recovery.

The 'traffic light' system would see countries classed as either green, amber or red - depending on the threat they pose of fuelling the pandemic. It was yesterday revealed that only eight countries are set to feature on the government's green travel list, including Gibraltar, Israel, Iceland and the US.

The Government has yet to say which countries will make it onto the 'green list' for low risk travel but the Department for Transport has pledged to categorise countries 'in early May'. Assessments will be based on a range of factors, including the proportion of a country's population that has been vaccinated, rates of infection, emerging new variants, and the country's access to reliable scientific data and genomic sequencing. The Government's Global Travel Taskforce published details on the proposed traffic light system earlier this month. It will see countries rated green, amber or red, with travel from 'green' countries quarantine-free but passengers will have to take one test after flying home, rather than the current two. Boris Johnson's lockdown exit roadmap states that international travel will resume no earlier than May 17.

Travel bosses this week delivered a damning assessment of the taskforce's report as they claimed it lacked detail and argued the proposed timetable for the return of flights is too slow.

Simon McNamara, the UK and Ireland country manager for the International Air Transport Association, told MPs: 'There was a tremendous amount of expectation from this report and we expected it to be, if you like, the start of the sprint to the finish. But it has turned out to be another milestone and I think that is the disappointment in it. It has provided that framework, it has provided some clarity but there are many areas that are still unanswered… it is very vague in many areas such as the timescale to when the border will be ready, which countries will fall into which category. I think crucially the approach to reopening we believe is still too complex and too cautious I'm afraid.'

Chris Garton, chief solutions officer at Heathrow Airport, expressed concerns about the proposed testing regime and added: 'Our biggest issue in terms of the summer particularly is the performance at the border and we need to see a dramatic improvement in border performance if we are to increase passenger numbers travelling through Heathrow.'

Mr McNamara echoed a similar sentiment on border checks as he said: 'Finally, it is the point that Chris raised which is the ability of the border to handle any scale up in operations. It is unable to cope at the moment so we are very concerned about that also.'

Brian Strutton, the general secretary of the British Airline Pilots Association, told the Committee that the taskforce's report was a 'bitter disappointment to everybody working in the industry'. The expectation was this would be the blueprint to get summer flights going again,' he said. 'In fact it is not, it is a jam tomorrow, "we might let you know next month where you can fly to and when". There is no specificity in it at all so as a result many airlines have already told us they will be curtailing the plans they had for the summer.'

Mark Tanzer, the chief executive of the Association of British Travel Agents, said firms are increasingly feeling the strain as he cautioned against further delays to resuming holidays abroad. He said: 'I guess I can't emphasise enough the urgency of pushing forward with this given the state of the industry which has been in suspension for over a year now and the fact that we have gone through Easter and out the other side with international travel illegal means there is even more pressure on the summer season. A week lost is vital for a lot of members who could be teetering on the brink.'

Left - Johan Lundgren

The evidence to MPs came after Mr Lundgren struck a more optimistic tone on Wednesday morning, telling reporters: 'I will struggle to see that there will be, unless something happens between now and then, that there would be many (European) countries who wouldn't be in that green category.' Mr Lundgren said the main question customers were asking was which countries would be on the 'green list' as he urged the Government to come forward with more details as soon as possible. He added: 'We would expect that, if the Government continues with the approach on the testing regime that they have said, I would expect almost all major European countries, that by the time it comes to travel reopening, that most countries in Europe should be in that category.'

Travel to and from a 'green' country will require people to be tested before they leave their holiday destination and again two days after arrival back in the UK. The Government is exploring whether cheaper rapid lateral flow tests could be used for the pre-departure check with a PCR test then used for the test after arrival.

Mr Lundgren said: 'If the PCR test and the lateral flow test will need to be in place for 'green' countries, I couldn't see that there would be many countries in Europe that wouldn't be in the "green" category. It's important the Government comes out with this list as soon as possible because this is the main question for most of our customers right now. They want to know if the favourite destination for them to go on their holiday or to visit friends and family across Europe is that country in the "green" category. And it will be a big difference, of course, if you're in the "green" category, versus if you're in "amber" or "red".'

The UK's seven-day rate of coronavirus cases per 100,000 people stands at 29, while many popular short-haul locations have much higher figures, including France (348), Greece (185), Italy (169) and Spain (111). Asked if he expects destinations such as France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Croatia, Cyprus and Turkey to be on the Government 'green list', Mr Lundgren replied: 'Yes, by the time we open up for travel on May 17 and if the Government continues to have the plan in place on the two-test system. I wouldn't see reason why you wouldn't have the majority of the countries of Europe in there. We really believe that, if you're in the "green" category, there should not be any need of any testing at all because it would be considered low-risk.'

Meanwhile, BA boss Mr Doyle said swift vaccine rollouts in the UK and the US should enable transatlantic routes to reopen. 'There's an immediate opportunity to open up the US,' Mr Doyle said during CAPA Live, an online industry event. With the two countries 'more or less mirroring each other' on vaccination, he said 'that should lead to the UK and the US being able to lead the way in terms of opening up'.

Paul Charles, the CEO of The PC Agency, said he believes discussions between the US and the UK are 'proceeding positively'. He said: 'The UK/US governments are in negotiations at the moment which are proceeding positively, about a possible pilot bilateral corridor scheme to enable safe travel between the two countries after the end of May. 'One of the (eight) Global Travel Taskforce workstreams is called 'Engaging with other like-minded countries' – these are countries such as the US which have advanced vaccine rollout programmes and are focused on reducing infection and variant rates.'

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