Simon Calder: Olympic-sized problem that's going nowhere fast

Queue chaos must not be allowed to stretch beyond this summer


Like English footballers and Scottish tennis players, the Home Affairs Select Committee missed the target yesterday when they questioned the Immigration minister, Damian Green, about the woeful queues for new arrivals at Heathrow.

"Every desk will be manned at all peak times," the minister assured the committee. But he was referring only to the Olympics, exactly the period that should not be pre-occupying our politicians.

The "international embarrassment" that one of the MPs, David Winnick, feared, was that competitors, media and officials coming to London for the 2012 Games may have to wait in line a while. But that is the least of our problems. The Olympic governing body is not going to take the Games away from London. Again, the wrong target. It is exactly the time when high-spending leisure visitors and commercially important business travellers will not be coming to London.

Before his interrogation in Westminster, Mr Green spent time at Terminal 4, looking at the length of queues. But rather than tackling the root causes of long waits, the minister mentioned a Disneyesque plaster to dress up the symptoms: "We now have queue signage to let people know how long they will have to wait."

I was also at Terminal 4 yesterday morning – talking to the people who have a far clearer picture of waits at immigration than, it appears, the airport, the airlines and the UK Border Agency. The minicab and limousine drivers meeting passengers told a uniform story of uncertainty. The red-jacketed man meeting a Mr Ahmed told of a four-hour wait the previous week for an Indian businesswoman. His friend described the fury among his regular clients from outside Europe that the IRIS recognition system is to be scrapped after the Olympics.

And Anderson Marfan, a driver from Egham who I met looking wanly at the trickle of arriving passengers at Terminal 4, said the system is simply not working: "I do meet and greet, mostly European businessmen who get through quickly – but if I'm meeting an American or Canadian they can be hours."

His North American clients may benefit, after the Games, from an express lane for non-European arrivals who do not need visas – in other words, First World, mainly white, middle-class travellers. This will make third-class citizens of passengers with Third World passports, and reinforce the notion that the UK is not a welcoming nation that is open for business – but a country profoundly mistrustful of foreigners.

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