Travellers arriving in the UK will be able to pass through airports without a physical check by border officials under government plans released today, leading unions to warn of an increased risk they will evade quarantine.
Plans drawn up by transport secretary Grant Shapps include the return of e-gates at airports, in a bid to cut massive queues which the government admits have made social distancing impossible.
Instead of being checked manually, passenger locator forms will be integrated digitally with e-gates, allowing nationals of the UK and a short list of other countries to register their details electronically.
The system is due to be rolled out at the largest airports, such as Heathrow by the start of the summer, but will not reach many others until the autumn, leaving Border Force officials to deal with long queues through the peak holiday season.
But Lucy Moreton of border staff union ISU told The Independent that there were doubts that the technology to link the forms to passport-readers would be ready in time.
And she said staff were concerned that the use of e-gates will mean more people skipping the requirement to self-isolate at home for 10 days if arriving from “amber list” countries and in quarantine hotels after coming back from high-risk “red list” areas.
Under the current system, travellers must list the countries they have visited and give details of their planned address in Britain on an online passenger locator form before arriving in the UK. They are required to physically show border officials proof that they have submitted the form and to answer any questions about their journey.
Ms Moreton said that the number of people hiding visits to red list countries was certain to increase when manual checks are removed.
“You can lie to a border officer, but they’re trained in behavioural detection,” she said. “They’ve got experience, they are used to being lied to.
“There are other things they might spot – tags on luggage, tickets. There’s a far greater risk of getting caught if you lie to a human being than if you don’t lie to a machine.
“You will lose the ability to put that simple question ‘Where have you been in the last 10 days?’ which at the very least will pick up people who don’t realise that the country they’ve been to was on the red list.”
Ms Moreton said that border staff will welcome the shorter queues which will result from reducing physical checks.
This week, Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye that waits for UK Border Force had stretched as long as six hours – even with the tiny number of passengers currently travelling.
Ms Moreton said this had led to a high level of verbal abuse of staff by travellers and made it impossible to maintain Covid-secure social distancing.
Border Force staff have suffered “significant” rates of coronavirus infection and at least five deaths, though it was impossible to say whether the virus was picked up at work, she said.
Today’s taskforce report admitted: “Border Force, and border systems generally, have faced significant pressures due to manual checks to ensure compliance with public health measures.
“Lengthy checks at the border are creating excess queues, posing a risk to social distancing, passenger welfare and the overall border experience.” And Ms Moreton said: “There is no social distancing, there’s no space for social distancing. The risk associated with transmission is significant.”
She raised doubts over whether it will prove possible to integrate the passenger locator form with e-gates to the promised timescale, saying: “It should be possible, but government tech contracts do not have a happy history.”
And she questioned whether pre-departure Covid test certificates, which are sometimes carried in paper form, could be checked under the proposed system.
The Independent’s travel correspondent Simon Calder said that the proposed delay to the return of e-gates after the expected reopening of international travel on 17 May suggested the government was not anticipating large-scale holidays abroad this summer.
“This apparently minor detail speaks volumes about the government’s vision of overseas travel in 2021,” said Calder.
“It implies manual checking by hard-pressed officials will remain in place right across the summer peak, which in turn suggests either overwhelming crowding at passport control – or simply that holidays abroad will be the preserve of the relatively few until the autumn.”