Heathrow Airport arrivals face queue nightmare as travel rules relax

Border Force staffing levels have been criticised and loosening of travel restrictions on October 4 may worsen the problem

Passengers arriving at London Heathrow Airport have complained of hours-long queues and “mediocrity” at immigration, despite the UK Home Office saying last month it was working to improve waiting times.

The UK’s largest airport was inundated on Friday with frustrated travellers who faced long waits to pass through customs, which have been blamed on Covid-related health checks and problems with the eGates.

The Home Office's Border Force, which enforces immigration and customs controls, has previously been accused of not having enough staff.

Heathrow said passenger numbers in August were still 71 per cent lower compared to August 2019 — before the pandemic.

There are fears that a looming loosening of travel restrictions, increasing passenger numbers, could cause delays to become even worse.

From October 4, destinations will be ranked low or high risk, instead of red, amber and green.

Fewer testing requirements will exist for people arriving from low-risk countries.

Images posted online showed passengers waiting in long queues outside the main immigration hall on Friday morning.

“Border Force is currently experiencing some delays as they conduct health measure checks to ensure passenger compliance with the UK government’s latest entry requirements,” Heathrow Airport said.

“While we do not have exact figures out how long queues can take, our teams in the terminals are on hand to support where possible and we are working with Border Force to reduce delays as soon as possible.”

Conservative MP James Sunderland said it had taken him 90 minutes to pass through immigration at Heathrow’s Terminal 2 on Thursday night.

“Yet more mediocrity. It's time we raise the bar with all UK services, bring back true jeopardy and hold our senior executives properly to account,” he said on Twitter.

Some passengers complained of queues of more than two hours on Friday morning, with one claiming thousands were stuck in line.

Concerns were also raised about those with underlying health problems forced to wait in congested areas, where they may be at greater risk of catching Covid-19.

Last month, Heathrow blamed Border Force staff shortages for the delays, while the Home Office — of which Border Force is a part — described the queues as “unacceptable”.

It had been claimed those staff shortages were due to a wave of sicknesses among Border Force officials after shifts were lengthened for some.

“It is inaccurate to say changes to Border Force staff rotas caused a spike in sickness in August. The changes were only introduced on August 22, and were made following extensive consultation with staff and the trade unions, including the Immigration Service Union, to improve our operational efficiency and effectiveness,” a Home Office representative said.

“Our utmost priority is protecting the safety and health of the public. We will never compromise on border security and continue to fulfil our vital function of keeping the border secure and provide the resources needed to do this.

“Border Force regularly reviews staffing requirements to ensure resources are deployed flexibly as and when required to carry out the vital function of border security.”

But the airport continues to be beset by complaints, with long waits last week attributed to problems with the eGates.

Responding to one passenger who complained that only five of 15 eGates were working Friday morning, Heathrow said: “While we work closely with our colleagues operating at Heathrow, it is Border Force who governs the immigration process at the airport.”

A Home Office official said a technical issue affecting a small number of eGates at Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 2 on Friday morning had since been resolved.

Updated: October 1st 2021, 3:25 PM