Heathrow passengers stuck for up to six hours in ‘crippling’ border queues, boss warns MPs

Alarm raised over Border Force ‘capability’ – even with passenger numbers at 10-15 per cent of normal

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
@Rob_Merrick
Wednesday 10 March 2021 15:00
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Heathrow passengers queuing for up to six hours, chief exec Emma Gilthorpe warns

Passengers are queuing up to a “crippling” six hours to get through border controls at Heathrow Airport, its boss has warned MPs.

Emma Gilthorpe raised the alarm over the “capability” of Border Force operations – even with passenger numbers at no more than 15 per cent of normal.

Asked whether Heathrow would “cope” when holiday travellers return for the summer, she said improvements were urgently needed, adding: “I need to know the desks will be manned.”

The chief operating officer said “pre-Covid-19” queues of up to two hours had become three hours, warning: “We have had queues extended out to 6 hours on occasion.”

E-gates were out of use because they were not yet able to cope with virus test forms and other paperwork introduced because of the pandemic.

“The extra layers that have been introduced are crippling the resourcing capability that Border Force has in place,” Ms Gilthorpe told the Commons home affairs committee

“We are at unacceptable levels of queuing. It is distressing when we see those pictures of queues,” she warned.

The Heathrow boss said “there isn’t currently a requirement” for passengers from ‘red list’ countries – those heading for hotel quarantine – to do separated out in arrival halls.

And, asked if procedure were putting people “at risk”, she replied: “I can’t answer that question” – saying the Border Force had raised the issue with Public Health England.

Asked at what point passengers might have to be kept waiting on planes – to ease the pressure inside Heathrow – Ms Gilthorpe suggested the trigger point was “40-50 per cent” of normal numbers.

“But those queue lengths would still be unacceptable,” she told the committee.

Ms Gilthorpe warned of longstanding staff shortages, a situation that “has been deteriorating since the Olympics”, nearly a decade ago.

There was no date for when e-gates would be able to cope with Covid checks, but she said: “The hope is that is going to be introduced for the summer.”

The bleak picture was painted ahead amid an explosion in bookings for foreign holidays, sparked by the success of the vaccination programme.

The ban on overseas travel will not be lifted until after 17 May at the earliest – with a government travel plan to be announced last month – but Greece and Cyprus are already inviting Britons.

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