U.K. Travel Ramp Up Puts Border-Control Upgrades to the Test
(Bloomberg) -- The U.K.’s decision to ease travel restrictions later this month will test changes to a border-control apparatus that failed to keep up with surging passenger volumes during an initial reopening in May.
The government will lift a quarantine requirement on vaccinated residents returning from medium-risk destinations starting July 19, including most of Europe and the U.S. The long-awaited move promises to spur airline travel, as British tourists gain confidence they can plan trips without holing up at home for 10 days when they get back.
While welcome for travelers, the change thrusts border systems back into the spotlight that were stressed by a dramatic increase in entries when Britain first lifted a ban on most overseas travel. Backups reached several hours as border guards took time to inspect Covid-19 test documents, while faster e-gates were sidelined and social distancing requirements limited the number of desks that could open at one time.
“Border Force have assured us that they can manage an increase in demand and it’s up to them to deliver,” said Weston Macklem, a spokesman for London Heathrow airport. “It’s not going to look great for them if over the summer people get these new freedoms but have to wait in massive queues.”
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said Friday that the government is increasing Border Force staff to cope with the extra queues.
It has also sought to automate processing where it can, while handing some duties like Covid-19 test-result checks to airlines which have rolled out apps to make the job easier. Most of the verification will be done at check-in, Shapps said. The arrangements will also apply to ferry and rail firms, he said, referring to Channel Tunnel rail operator Eurostar International Ltd.
“The real backlog would potentially be in the place you leave from, rather than when you get back to the U.K.,” he told the BBC. “Travel is going to be more disrupted than it was back in 2019 because we’ve got an important job to do to make sure we keep coronavirus under check. But I know everyone’s working very hard to minimize those queues.”
Some staff have been brought back from retirement and reallocated from other tasks, said Lucy Moreton, a spokeswoman for the Immigration Services Union, which represents border agents. Border Force is also set to remove the social-distancing requirements for staff from July 19, opening more kiosks, she said.
Automated gates are open at London Gatwick and some are being used at London Heathrow, with more coming online soon, according to the airports.
This will ease passage for the bulk of travelers affected by the new rules, as Britons can generally use e-gates after filling out digital passenger locator forms that themselves track scheduled tests and will store vaccination status.
Border staff aren’t carrying out any added test-result checks on people who go through the e-gates, according to Moreton. Border Force officials didn’t respond to requests for comment.
“Anyone not complying with health measures could face a fine, and carriers will be required to ensure proper checks are carried out,” the Department for Transport said in a statement on its website.
Thursday’s announcement is likely to spur hordes of vaccinated Britons to consider an overseas holiday this summer as the government removed advice against traveling to amber-listed countries like Spain, Portugal and Italy.
In the hours after Thursday’s announcement, discount carrier EasyJet Plc said bookings to amber-list countries quintupled, and put an extra 145,000 seats on sale. British Airways reported a doubling of flight searches from a week ago.
Wizz Air Holdings Plc said Friday it will restart flights to 25 destinations on the U.K. amber list, taking the number of green and amber options for Britons to 44. Wizz shares rose as much as 1.8%, while EasyJet gained 3.5%, BA owner IAG SA 3.1% and Ryanair Holdings Plc 2.8%.
It’s still not clear whether the changes at the border will be enough to keep up with rising passenger volumes, according to union spokeswoman Moreton.
Arrivals from many countries aren’t able to use the e-gates, and will have to be processed manually. “Any increase in passengers will result in an exponential increase in queues,” she said.
Another question is whether travelers will properly fill out the forms. One reason the Border Force was asked to check all documentation was because of non-compliance, she said.
The government said it would consider extending the relaxation of self-isolation requirements -- which now apply only to residents -- to visitors from Europe or the U.S. later this summer.
“We’re actively working on it and I should be able to return shortly on that,” Shapps said. “It’s easier from some places than others.”
The European Union has developed a system very similar to Britain’s own National Heath Service app, whereas the U.S. “has 50 different systems for each state and much of it is paper based,” he said.
Airline groups want more, urging the government to allow all fully vaccinated people to enter, and to do away with costly testing requirements.
British Airways and Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. are trialling app-based vaccination-check technology at Heathrow in hopes it will prove to authorities that it can work.
“Airlines have been really keen to push a streamlined system, and that will clearly benefit passengers,” said Rory Boland, the travel editor for consumer group Which? “Governments and border forces have had a good amount of time to prepare for this so they really should already have solutions ready.”
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