Queues, tests and quarantine: what it’s really like to arrive in lockdown UK

Passengers at London Heathrow complain of delays and social distancing breaches

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Travellers arriving in the UK face lengthy delays at border control as officials enforce new coronavirus checks.

Passengers at Heathrow Airport on Wednesday told The National they faced waits of more than an hour for their negative Covid-19 test results to be signed off by customs officers.

They said social distancing rules were breached as travellers faced lengthy queues after being funnelled into the arrivals hall, and that authorities should better enforce mask-wearing.

Several passengers spoke of the difficulty of getting a test in countries where asymptomatic screening is not widely available.

All passengers arriving in the UK face a £500 ($683) fine if they do not present a negative test result taken within 72 hours of departure.

Border Force said 30 passengers were fined after arriving in the country without a correct certificate showing a negative PCR, lateral flow or Lamp test result. The travellers were allowed on their way after being fined, the Home Office said.

Rose Medway, who arrived at Heathrow on an Emirates flight from Dubai, said the long queues on arrival in Britain were unexpected.

“It was slow – very different to Dubai, where there were no problems at all,” she said.

Dawn Heather White, who arrived in the UK from Kenya, criticised authorities for bringing in the requirement at short notice.

“Having to have it 72 hours before departure, my departure was Tuesday so I needed it on Sunday,” she said.

Dawn Heather White arrived in the UK from Kenya. Brodie Owen/The National

“I ended up going to my local clinic and they very efficiently sorted it out for me, so that was a relief, but it did cause me sleepless nights trying to get it done at short notice.”

International difficulties

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the new regime was brought in to "protect against the risk of as yet unidentified new strains" of Covid. He said the rules would be in place until at least February 15.

The UK was the fourth-busiest country for air travel in Europe on Wednesday, with about 1,000 flights, according to aviation agency Eurocontrol. Before lockdown and the new entry requirements, the UK was the region’s busiest.

The number of flights arriving in the UK ahead before the festive period was more than 2,000 a day.

Healthcare worker Kaya Jones said she needed “to pull a few strings” to get her coronavirus test but was otherwise pleased with the new arrangements at the UK border.

The British citizen, who arrived from Australia, said it was difficult to get an asymptomatic test on a Sunday in Australia.

Martin Whitelow had to wait longer than an hour in a queue with social distancing breaches on arriving in the UK. Martin Whitelow

“Not all places are set up for a fit-to-fly test on a Sunday,” she said. “I had to pull a few strings, if I’m honest. I got it free but it would have cost hundreds of pounds for others.”

Martin and Beverly Whitelow, who were returning home from Kenya, said they waited more than an hour to get through border control.

“They had 12 cabins with three guys checking your documents,” Mr Whitelow said.

“Everybody was parked in together, no social distancing. Considering there are all these big flights coming in, it was a complete nightmare. You’d think they’d be more organised.”

'Do what's necessary'

The government suspended the UK’s travel corridors on Monday, meaning all overseas travellers are required to quarantine for 10 days on arrival.

One passenger from Bahrain, which was previously on the safe travel list, said he did not object to the requirement.

“You have to do what’s necessary to stop Covid from spreading,” he said.

Ms White, who was en route to Belfast after three months abroad, said arriving in the UK while the pandemic was raging was eerie. She said British authorities needed to better enforce mask-wearing.

“This is the scariest part of the journey,” she said.

Should we have closed our borders earlier? The answer is yes.

Lucy Moreton from the ISU, the union representing border officers, said delays were expected after the new rules were introduced.

"It was brought in quite suddenly, so it is inevitably going to be slower when you’re checking documents that you aren't familiar with," she said.

"Border officers want to check as many as they can but the certificate for the negative Covid tests are challenging - every country presents them in a different format, some of them aren't even in English."

Asked whether travellers were choosing to accept the fine rather than organise a test, Ms Moreton said: "Some people aren’t getting the test, I can’t speculate as to why, but carriers are not obliged to check the test before travel, which puts everybody at risk."

Meanwhile, Home Secretary Priti Patel admitted on Wednesday that the government should have closed the borders in March last year when the pandemic reached the UK.

Authorities did not impose a ban or quarantine restrictions on international travellers arriving in the UK until June.

"Should we have closed our borders earlier? The answer is yes. I was an advocate of closing them in March," Ms Patel said in video obtained by Guido Fawkes.

What are the new rules for travellers?

Travellers arriving in the UK, whether by boat, train or plane, have to show proof of a negative Covid-19 test to be allowed entry. The proof must be in English, French or Spanish.

The test must be taken in the 72 hours before travelling and anyone arriving without one faces a fine of up to £500.

All passengers will still be required to quarantine for up to 10 days.

However, the isolation period can be cut short with a negative test with a private provider after five days, allowing those travellers to leave quarantine by day seven, as tests can take up to 48 hours to process.

All arrivals in the UK must also complete a passenger locator form, detailing travel details and the address where they will stay.

In pictures – UK tightens border rules