Nearly half of all Border Force staff stationed at Heathrow were off sick last week as a trade union accused the Home Office of causing mayhem by imposing ‘rigid and inflexible’ work bubbles, MailOnline can reveal.
Thousands of passengers who tried to beat the Government’s hotel quarantine regime which has come into force today experienced massive delays at Border Check at the West London airport last week.
Video showed stretched Border Force officials complaining that they were understaffed while checking the passports, locator forms and Covid test results of scores of arrivals who queued for hours to clear customs.
MailOnline can now reveal that the chaos experienced at the border has been partly caused by sickness, with 138 out of around 300 agents off work last Friday – and just 44 of those actually ill with coronavirus.
Sources said 16 were self-isolating after they or another member of their household received a positive test result, and 78 were off with non-Covid sicknesses such as flu, stress and injury. There is currently a nationwide restriction on 9,500 Border Force staff taking annual leave.
Trade unions also blamed the Home Office for causing ‘needless’ border chaos by instructing Border Force officials to work in 12-person bubbles which perform different operations across the two open terminals.
It is understood that Border Force Chief Operating Officer Emma Moore made a decision to split the workforce into bubbles in mid-December, in an apparent bid to prevent staff from spreading mutant variants of Covid.
However, Heathrow received its three-star Covid-secure certification last September – with Border Force agents already socially distancing and sitting in isolated booths as they complete passport checks.
The Immigration Services Union (ISU) has claimed that the decision was ‘arbitrary’ and has accused Chief Operating Officer Moore of ignoring their concerns that the policy would cause mayhem at the border.
Passengers line up for passport control in the UK Border area of Terminal 2 of Heathrow Airport, London last week – with half of all Border Force staff were off sick last Friday
Border Force agents working across the two terminals open have been required to work in bubbles since December 31, following a decision by Chief Operating Officer Emma Moore
Unions warn of ‘bedlam’ at the border amid fears guards lack powers to stop fleeing travellers
Air passengers arriving from 33 ‘red list’ countries will be forced to undergo an 11-night hotel quarantine in an attempt to clamp down on the spread of new coronavirus variants.
But immigration unions have repeatedly warned that officers have not been given key information about how the scheme is intended to work.
Unions said the Government had ‘failed at the first hurdle’ if it allowed passengers from high-risk countries to mix with other travellers and staff before they were taken to quarantine hotels.
The GMB union said its members and airport staff had raised fears that passengers from countries on the UK’s ‘red list’ were allowed to mix with others in passport queues and crowded arrivals halls.
The warning followed lengthy queues at passport control inside Heathrow last week as travellers scrambled to beat the quarantine deadline.
Nadine Houghton, of the GMB union, told The Observer: ‘If you’ve got people getting off planes from the red list countries, then being crammed into areas with passengers who aren’t going into quarantine – and staff as well – you’ve failed at the first hurdle.
‘Our members working at Heathrow Airport, the ground staff, security staff, have been raising concerns about this for two weeks now. Heathrow just isn’t safe at the moment.’
The Immigration Services Union (ISU) has warned that its workers have not been given enough guidance about how to enforce the quarantine policy.
Spokeswoman Lucy Moreton said officers had not been told what they should do if travellers arrived at other airports, or refused to cooperate with quarantine arrangements.
Though there are official supposed to be 12 people in a single bubble, in reality a bubble numbers anywhere between six and eight due to a combination of factors including child care, illness and work rotas, sources have claimed.
Border Force officials in one bubble are not allowed to ‘burst the bubble’ to help their colleagues completing a difficult task in another – meaning there is no flexibility if hundreds of passengers fly into the airport at once.
This often means that a small number of Border Force agents are inundated with arrivals all wanting to complete border checks at the same time while other bubbles are in other, more quiet parts of the airport.
While up to eight officials might be checking hundreds of passports, passenger locator forms and Covid test results, others can be sorting paperwork, looking after vulnerable adults and children – or on their break.
MailOnline understands that there are around 30 passport gates at the two terminals, with no fewer than half open at any one time.
The ISU said Chief Operating Officer Moore’s bubble policy is ‘needless when Heathrow is already Covid-secure and staff are already socially distanced’.
Spokeswoman Lucy Moreton said the bubbles were ‘plainly far too rigid and inflexible’ and accused Border Force of causing chaos at the airport.
‘We warned Border Force that this approach would create serious difficulties at the Border but were ignored,’ she told MailOnline.
‘It was claimed that ‘bubbles’ would better protect our people’s welfare but cases of Covid infection and self-isolation have instead increased, leading to still further absences.
‘Our people are now left under enormous pressure and with completely inadequate support as they try to secure the Border. The ISU cannot stand by and see our people blamed for Border Force mismanagement.’
The Home Office did not respond directly to MailOnline’s queries about the bubble policy or the chaos at Border Check at Heathrow.
However, a spokesperson said the force has ‘a responsibility to ensure our officers are working in Covid secure environments’.
They insisted bubbles were created ‘to reduce staff-to-staff transmission and ultimately protect our staff and the public’ – and added that it would be ‘inappropriate to comment on the deployment of staff for operational and security reasons’.
A Government spokesperson previously said: ‘People should not be travelling unless for a very limited reason. Given the enhanced monitoring in place at UK airports to keep us safe and protect the vaccine rollout, people can expect queues.
Thousands of passengers who tried to beat the Government’s hotel quarantine regime experienced massive delays at Border Check in the West London airport last week
33 ‘high-risk’ nations from which arriving travellers will have to quarantine in hotels
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Portugal (including Madeira and the Azores)
United Arab Emirates (UAE)
‘Every essential check from pre-departure testing, to the Passenger Locator Form, to the suspension of travel routes will strengthen our borders and help to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
‘Every airport, including Heathrow, has a responsibility to comply with social distancing and Covid measures on site.’
It comes as a Heathrow arrival today claimed to have ‘no idea’ about the new hotel quarantine scheme before being hit with a £500 fine and told to pay £1,750 for 10 days’ isolation.
British businessman Wayne Kelly said he had not heard about the new rules for high-risk countries before he was handed a note by Border Force warning him to expect a penalty for breaching Covid laws.
Meanwhile, others slammed ‘ridiculous’ rules confining them to their rooms despite having mixed with travellers not on the ‘red list’ during the flight home.
Travellers were dropped off at hotels near Heathrow as the new scheme began and a hospitality boss vowed to make their ten-day, stay more ‘homely’ with ‘branded shampoo, puzzles and crockery’.
Dozens of passengers were seen arriving by coach at the four-star Radisson Blu Edwardian after touching down in the UK from a variety of Covid red list countries including the United Arab Emirates, Zambia and South Africa.
Guests will pay £1,750 per person for the 11 nights, plus an additional £650 for anyone over the age of 12 and £325 for children aged between five and 12. There will be no extra fees for children under five.
Throughout their stay guests will have to eat airline-style food left at their door, change their own sheets and towels and be accompanied by security if they want fresh air or a cigarette outside.
The Radisson offers spacious and airy rooms with large windows, Egyptian cotton linen and goose down pillows – although confined guests will be unable to enjoy its spa or choice of three restaurants.
Standard rooms cost around £150 a night while superior suites include their own Nespresso machine.
UK government’s new travel rules revealed: From repeated Covid tests to ten years in prison for people lying about having visited ‘hot spot’ countries
Matt Hancock has announced details of the tougher border measures to MPs.
TEN YEARS IN PRISON
Mr Hancock said that arrivals who lie on their passenger locator forms about visiting ‘hot spot’ countries, in order to avoid hotel quarantine, face up to a decade in prison.
It affects British arrivals from 33 countries deemed high risk of new variants. Nationals of those countries will be refused entry to the UK and most direct flights have already been banned.
The countries include all of South America, large parts of Africa – including South Africa – and the United Arab Emirates.
Arrivals from Red List nations will have to quarantine at a Government-designated hotel for 10 days.
It will cost the travellers £1,750 each, although the Government is paying the upfront cost and will bill them afterwards.
Attempts to break out of the quarantine before the 10 days are up could result in a fine of up to £10,000.
They are not eligible for the five-day ‘test and release’ scheme.
None of the 16 hotels involved in Number 10’s quarantine plan have been named for ‘commercial reasons’.
REPEATED COVID TESTS
Red List arrivals will be required to test negative for coronavirus 72 hours before departure, using a kit that meets UK government standards.
They will be tested again on day two and day eight of quarantine, with costs included in the wider charge of the hotel stay.
NON-RED LIST ARRIVALS
The same requirement for a negative test result 72 hours before departure applies.
Once in the UK, they must isolate for 10 days at home or in private accommodation, with the authorities able to check that they are obeying the rules.
Tests will be required on day two and day eight of isolation, and must be booked through a government portal in advance of travel. The portal will be launched on Thursday.
The costs are not yet known but PCR tests typically cost around £120 a time.
TEST AND RELEASE
The test and release scheme – which allows non-‘red list travellers’ to leave isolation if they test negative after five days is staying in place. Many essential business travellers are likely to take this option.
However, Mr Hancock suggested even though they will not be subject to quarantine after the five-day test, they will still be required to have tests on day two and days eight. That means they could be screened four times in total.