Heathrow passengers complain of unchecked Covid tests as air travel reignites

Tourists begin to return to London as travel restrictions ease

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Passengers arriving at London's Heathrow Airport have told of their frustration at having to pay for Covid-19 tests that are never checked by UK officials.

Their complaints came after quarantine-free travel resumed for double-vaccinated amber list passengers this week amid warnings that major queues should be expected at the airport for both arrivals and departures.

Passenger numbers are expected to rise significantly as summer travel to and from the UK begins in earnest this week, with many passengers keen to get away before any further tightening of rules.

The easing of UK travel restrictions in early May led to rising demand for air travel, but levels still have some way to go to catch up with 2019.

A total of 2,857 flights took off and landed at UK airports on Thursday, compared with 6,519 flights on the same day in 2019, according to Eurocontrol.

Passengers who spoke to The National at Heathrow this week expressed anger at the array of hoops they had to jump through to land in the UK and the expense of the Covid controls.

In line with the UK's traffic light travel rules, all travellers landing in the UK need to pay for a pre-departure Covid test.

Green list passengers only need to take a further test two days after arriving in England.

Unvaccinated passengers from amber countries need to self-isolate for 10 days and take further tests on days two and eight of their quarantine.

You pay £100 for a test and no one asks you - it’s frustrating.
Ionella Enuta, traveller

Double-vaccinated travellers do not need to quarantine, but they still need to purchase a test to be taken on the second day after their arrival.

Red list passengers have to pay to spend 10 days in a quarantine hotel.

Covid test packages range from between £23 ($31) to as much as £575, according to the UK government's list of providers. Travellers are not allowed to use the free National Health Service tests.

Waived through without a check

Ionela Enuta was concerned that border officials did not check her negative Covid test after landing at Heathrow. Mark Chilvers for The National

Ionela Enuta, a double-vaccinated international student from Romania studying health and social care, was annoyed at having to pay for a Covid test package that was not checked by Border Force officials.

“No one asked me for a Covid test,” she said outside the arrivals hall of Heathrow's Terminal 2.

“You pay £100 for a test and no one asks you — it’s frustrating."

Martinique Obialo, from Oakland in California, said she had prepared for hours-long queues at the border but she only needed to wait for 20 minutes.

“It’s unheard of,” she said.

“The queues were so long in April so it seems the process is a lot better compared to then.”

Martinique Obialo is a tourist from Oakland in California. Mark Chilvers for The National

She said she believed the fact she arrived in the UK on a US passport helped her get through customs a lot faster than other passengers.

“They asked if I had an American passport and after then everything was fine. It was fine for me to go through,” she said.

“I was shocked. They didn’t ask for any of my documents.”

Britain's Home Office said airlines were checking passenger documents including negative Covid tests before they board the plane.

“Carriers will play a critical role, checking passengers’ documents before boarding and ensuring people have the right Covid-19 certification, to help us continue safeguarding against new variants,” a spokeswoman said.

“Since the reopening of international travel, Border Force officers have had enhanced capabilities to conduct automated checks at their desks on passengers who have valid passenger locator forms. This enables those passengers to pass through Border Force without further checks.”

Summer travel kick-starts

More than 1.5 million people from the UK are expected to fly out of the country this week, the highest number so far this year.

Travel companies also reported a rush in bookings, with a two-week window before the next review of England's traffic light system.

Paul Charles, the chief executive of travel consultancy the PC Agency, said there was a “rush” of people seeking to travel abroad, with new flights added to destinations in Europe and the Caribbean this week.

Peter Andreev and Ella Emerson, both young tourists from Chicago, said they felt the UK's entry requirements could be made simpler to understand as travel starts to resume around the world.

“It felt kind of stressful,” Mr Andreev said.

“The gov.uk page just has so many links to information you need to know before arriving. It’s just too much.”

He said his negative Covid-19 test and vaccination status was not checked by customs officials but confirmed the documents were checked by his carrier, United Airlines.

“It was annoying,” he said.

“It’s just the fees you have to pay for the tests — it’s a lot of money — £170 for two tests. You spend so much trying to get here and they didn't check."

Peter Andreev and Ella Emerson have regularly travelled during the pandemic. Mark Chilvers for The National

Claire and Ian Cunneen, two travellers from Macau, said their trip to the UK took a turn for the worse when one of their Covid tests returned an inconclusive result before their departure, delaying their flight by four days.

“I wish we were speaking under happier circumstances,” Ms Cunneen said.

She also said a passenger who had supposedly come from a red list country was seen queuing with other travellers despite UK government rules that state direct red list arrivals must immediately be transferred to a dedicated terminal.

“One lady from South Africa got told off for being with amber passengers, so that was slightly concerning that she was mixing with everyone else,” she said.

Complicated rules

Peer Breier, an insulation technician from Munich in Germany, applied for a quarantine exemption as an essential worker carrying out an upgrade to a London hospital.

He said the process was “a lot of organisation” for workers and suggested isolation requirements could be hurting the British economy.

“It's so complicated,” he said.

“I’ll be working at a hospital so I have to be tested for Covid every day but on top of that I have to take two other tests for the government while I’m here. It’s a lot of tests.

“I wish I didn’t have to do it but it’s necessary.”

Peer Breier from Munich was granted a quarantine exemption as an essential worker. Mark Chilvers for The National

Others who arrived at Heathrow this week were overjoyed to be travelling again.

Stacy Swift, from Chicago, said she had travelled regularly throughout the pandemic and the UK's system for travel was similar to that in many US states.

The double-vaccinated passenger was visiting London for a holiday. The UK capital has been on her bucket list for a long time, she said.

“It was slightly nerve-racking when you get to the border. He was pretty direct,” she said.

A Heathrow worker speaks to a passenger in the departure hall of Terminal 2. Mark Chilvers for The National

“He wanted to know where I was staying, when I was going to leave and I had to show my return ticket. It was a little bit intense but it was fine.

“I'm just so happy to be here. I love everything about London.”

Her comments would be welcome news to the domestic tourism industry which has suffered through a series of lockdowns and a lack of international visitors.

The rows of British Airways planes parked up at the carrier's Heathrow hanger are a reminder of the hit to travel abroad.

Despite the collapse in passenger numbers, the departure hall at Terminal 2 was busy this week, with long lines at check-in.

Heathrow “passenger experience managers” were on hand to answer questions from travellers.

Scotsman James Barrass, from South Queensferry near Edinburgh, was waiting at check-in for a flight to Canada for his son's wedding.

Canada allows entry for double-vaccinated travellers but they still need to quarantine for 14 days on arrival.

“It's worth it,” he said.

“I haven't seen my son for two years and what better reunion than to be there for his wedding. Skype, Zoom, all of the apps help but there's nothing better than being there in person. We're social animals and we all need that human touch.”

James Barrass from Scotland was travelling to Canada for his son's wedding. Mark Chilvers for The National

Another passenger, who only gave his name as Ryan, was flying to Texas after being abroad for more than five years.

“I can’t wait to be back,” he said.

“I haven't found it too stressful to go overseas, to be honest — just need a negative Covid test and I'm double-vaccinated, too.”

Asked what he was most looking forward to when he heads home, he said he would visit his favourite fast food chain.

“Gonna get me some Chick-fil-A!” he said, with a southern drawl.

In pictures: Passengers in hotel quarantine

Updated: July 23, 2021, 2:56 PM