Coronavirus UK: Hundreds enter Heathrow from virus hotspots


Even the blue face mask covering the Iranian-British businessman’s face couldn’t conceal his consternation as he emerged into the arrivals hall at Heathrow Airport.

Before boarding his Iran Air flight from Tehran, Farzad Parhizkar’s temperature – and those of the other 80 or so passengers – was checked by a laser-beam thermometer, he told me.

They had also been obliged to fill in a form giving such details as their name and address, destination, reason for travel, and whether they had any symptoms of coronavirus.

‘Then, when I arrive here in London, there is nothing at all,’ he said, his eyebrows raising above the mask.

‘There was no temperature check, no questions about my health, no advice on how to avoid catching the virus. Nothing. Everything was all just like the world is normal.’

International travellers arrive at an almost deserted London Heathrow Airport as government policy of not screening arriving passengers comes under scrutiny. Pictured: Passengers arriving from Tehran on Sunday

There are some of the 10,000 travellers who are estimated to still be flying into Heathrow every day. Pictured: The concourse at Heathrow Terminal 5

There are some of the 10,000 travellers who are estimated to still be flying into Heathrow every day. Pictured: The concourse at Heathrow Terminal 5

Passengers from the Holland America Line ship Zaandam walk through arrivals in Terminal 2 at Heathrow Airport in London, after flying back on a repatriation flight from Florida

Passengers from the Holland America Line ship Zaandam walk through arrivals in Terminal 2 at Heathrow Airport in London, after flying back on a repatriation flight from Florida

It was a criticism I heard repeatedly at Heathrow yesterday and on Sunday as I spoke to some of the 15,000 travellers who are – by Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s latest estimate – still flying into Britain every day.

Of these, the Department for Transport claims about 10,000 are landing at London’s main hub, while others are coming in through Gatwick, Manchester and Birmingham.

At a time when the nation is in lockdown, the very fact that these airports remain open to commercial flights is surely questionable enough.

That we are continuing to welcome passengers from countries such as Iran, where the official Covid-19 death rate stood yesterday at 5,209 (though many believe the mullahs are lying and that it is considerably higher) seems like utter madness.

Yesterday morning, flights also arrived from New York – the city with the world’s highest number of coronavirus deaths, 13,869 – Los Angeles (California, 1,072 deaths), Chicago (Illinois, 1,290), Miami (Florida, 764), Dallas (Texas, 467) and Washington DC (624).

Later, planes were due in from Rome, Madrid and Paris – three capitals at the epicentre of this pandemic – as well as from Tokyo, Lagos, Lisbon and Ahmedabad in India.

According to Heathrow’s website, the purpose of keeping the airport open is to help repatriate British citizens and import vital freight, such as medical equipment and food.

It points out that traffic has fallen by 75 per cent while cargo has increased by 200 per cent.

No one doubts these statistics. In fact, judging by the two days I spent at Heathrow, Mr Hancock’s 10,000 figure may now be an over-estimation. Of the five terminals, only numbers 2 and 5 remain in use, and they are eerily quiet.

No cafes or shops are open, except the chemist, no taxis line the ranks, you see very few staff, just a few cleaners and security guards milling about.

Disconcertingly, given that terrorists must surely be looking to exploit this vacuum, there is no visible police presence.

It is like a scene from Contagion, the dystopian film about a global pandemic that was released nine years ago – and has turned out to be uncannily accurate.

However, while Heathrow’s traffic has dropped dramatically – just 60 flights were due to arrive yesterday, less than a tenth of the number on any ordinary Monday – some of the passengers I met certainly weren’t making essential journeys.

Take 49-year-old Mr Parhizkar. A travelling furniture salesmen, his business takes him between Iran and Europe. He was passing through London – where he had to stay overnight – on his way to trade in Sweden, simply because he can no longer fly there directly.

According to Heathrow’s website, the purpose of keeping the airport open is to help repatriate British citizens and import vital freight, such as medical equipment and food

According to Heathrow’s website, the purpose of keeping the airport open is to help repatriate British citizens and import vital freight, such as medical equipment and food

Had he been selling furniture from a shop in Britain, of course, his business would be closed.

Others making the six-and-a-half-hour journey from Iran included a couple visiting relatives in London (they wandered around the terminal, looking forlornly for transport into the city), a woman with two children who had been to see her ailing mother, and a Reading-based Iranian heating engineer who had also been with his sick mother.

They were, at least, impressed with the safety precautions on the flight. The attendants wore masks and regularly proffered hand sanitiser, they said.

Passengers not travelling together were encouraged to space themselves out by leaving seats empty, which was relatively easy as the 280-seat Airbus was only about one-third full.

But surely there are obvious perils in allowing people to travel here from Iran, where the safety standards set by the authorities and the manner in which people are interpreting them, differ markedly from our own?

‘From what I saw, people in Britain are much more cautious about the virus than they are in Iran,’ said the 55-year-old heating engineer, who gave only his first name, Babak. ‘People do practice social distancing there, but it’s far more casual.’

He suggested that this might be because Iran has a much younger population than Britain. Whatever the reason, I saw first-hand what he meant. On several occasions at the airport, I had to warn over-friendly Iranians not to come within two metres of me.

Babak also described how the lockdown has been loosened in Iran during the past few days. Some shops are opening, and people are starting to go out and mix again, he said. Clearly, then, their strategy is very different to that of the British Government.

Disembarking in Terminal 5, after an overnight British Airways flight from America, Prague-based IT worker Ferdinand Habl, 32, was on a marathon journey – one that must have brought him into contact with an untold number of people and objects.

It had taken him first from Phoenix, Arizona, where the number of those infected remains relatively low and attitudes to the lockdown are correspondingly relaxed (with people continuing to attend huge church gatherings, for example) to Boston, Massachusetts.

At the weekend, after virus deaths in this small north-eastern state rose sharply to 1,560, its governor declared: ‘We’re right in the middle of the surge now.’

Mr Habl, a German national who also wore a mask, boarded a Heathrow-bound flight in Boston.

He hoped to find a connection to his home city of Munich – but was prepared to sleep at a friend’s flat in London if this wasn’t possible.

Aware of the rigorous testing and contact-tracing policy that has proved so effective in Germany, he was ‘surprised’ to have been allowed to breeze across the US and the Atlantic to London – a distance of 5,267 miles – without one single health check.

According to Heathrow Airport, traffic has fallen by 75 per cent while cargo has increased by 200 per cent

According to Heathrow Airport, traffic has fallen by 75 per cent while cargo has increased by 200 per cent

There are no cafes or shops are open, except the chemist, no taxis line the ranks at Heathrow Airport following the outbreak of coronavirus

There are no cafes or shops are open, except the chemist, no taxis line the ranks at Heathrow Airport following the outbreak of coronavirus

‘Because I’m a European citizen I didn’t even have to talk to anyone at your passport desk – I just used the automatic machine,’ Mr Habl said, shaking his head with disbelief.

The Government’s stance on air travel is that screening incoming passengers at this stage of the pandemic would be futile.

As Mr Hancock said late last week: ‘We don’t test at airports because the number of people coming through has dropped dramatically. Scientists say the epidemiological impact of keeping travel open is very small, because there’s already large transmission here.’

Perhaps so, yet driving away from Heathrow along the near-deserted M25, it was ironic to pass sign after sign urging motorists to make ‘essential journeys only’.

Millions of Britons are dutifully complying with this edict.

For anyone flying here, however, even if they are coming from the world’s deadliest Covid-19 hotspots, the door to Lockdown Britain remains wide open. 

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