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Heathrow Airport: Border Control Passenger Safety

Volume 812: debated on Tuesday 25 May 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they intend to take to improve the safety of passengers queuing at border control points at Heathrow airport.

My Lords, Heathrow Airport has extensive measures to ensure the safety and well-being of passengers and we have been working closely with it, Border Force and others to facilitate as smooth and safe a journey as possible for all passengers. In addition, Heathrow will shortly begin a trial in which direct flights from red list countries arrive into a dedicated terminal, helping to focus operational capacity and reduce mixing between passengers from red, amber, and green list countries.

My Lords, there have been three-hour queues at Heathrow with passengers crammed together, yet aviation is flying at only 15% of its capacity and Border Force says that it is working at full strength. This is the latest in a catalogue of errors by the Government in their border policy. Can the Minister tell us why the Government did not properly ensure that passengers were separated out at Heathrow from the start? When will they have the additional fully trained Border Force staff to provide a safe and efficient service?

My Lords, I also saw the images circulating last week of queues at Heathrow Airport, and I agree with the noble Baroness that we do not want to see a repeat of those kinds of scenes. However, I do not agree with her analysis. The Managed Quarantine Service has worked extremely well, and I pay tribute to Border Force for its contribution—we have more Border Force staff working today than we did during the 2012 Olympics. It does, unavoidably, take between five and 10 minutes for Border Force personnel to process each passenger; that is an unavoidable bureaucratic burden, but we have taken the necessary steps to ensure safe travel and minimise the circulation of mixed passengers within the terminals.

My Lords, widespread concerns have been raised by travellers arriving at Heathrow, but clearly there are many other border control points in this country. That being the case, can the Minister give a commitment to urgently share the lessons that are being learned at Heathrow with airport authorities in Belfast and Londonderry? As we begin to welcome family, friends and tourists back to Northern Ireland, after the most testing of periods for the Province’s travel and tourism sectors, there is real concern that our relatively low infection rates could take a turn for the worse if common sense and procedures are not followed in all terminals. As the United Kingdom, we simply cannot afford to get this wrong.

My Lords, I completely and utterly acknowledge the concerns expressed by the noble Lord and by communities who live proximately to regional airports. As we look to the opening up of more airports, we are enthusiastically and energetically engaged with those communities. I reassure the noble Lord that the systems that we have in place around both red and amber quarantine have extremely tight restrictions on them, and there is no evidence of leakage into the local communities. We are doing our best to communicate that fact to those who are concerned.

My Lords, Heathrow deserves credit for a number of the measures that it has been taking: dedicated channels for red-list arrivals, trialling a separate terminal for arrivals, and escorting people to separate areas. Would my noble friend agree that, if red-list arrivals are required to wait longer than others, there is justification for that? I hope that my noble friend will not consider stopping the opening up of further travel opportunities because of concerns about the spread of new variants in a population that has been so extensively vaccinated already.

My Lords, I join my noble friend in paying tribute to Heathrow, which has worked extremely hard, in a collaborative spirit, with the very difficult, challenging and often fast-changing border and quarantine arrangements. As she quite rightly says, its commitment to the red-list terminal pilot is extremely encouraging. However, I am afraid that I cannot give her the reassurance that she seeks on our mission to ensure that variants of concern that might have an impact on the vaccine will not be diligently and ruthlessly excluded from the country. It is our duty to protect the vaccine, and we will take whatever steps are necessary to do that.

I draw the House’s attention to my relevant interests in the register. It seems to me that the current pandemic will pass but the future threat will not: mass air travel will return and, with it, so will the risk that, once again, it will become the principal vector by which a localised epidemic could become a global pandemic. Therefore, I ask the Minister: what action are the Government taking to find suitable technological solutions that provide early detection of airborne pathogens within aircraft in transit in order to then take measures to avoid the risk of mass cross-contamination in airport terminals? Who in government is the focal point for such activity?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right: this is a 21st-century problem that we may well be living with for the rest of our lives. It is absolutely right that we look at the best and latest technology to try to mitigate risk and reduce the impact on the things that we love doing, including global travel. However, the image that he cited is a little far away at the moment, I am afraid: we are struggling to get accurate tests from a gob of spit, let alone from the air in an airport cabin. However, we are meeting with the firms who are investigating these kinds of technologies; that is done through the innovations and partnerships department of test and trace, and we are hopeful that those technologies will emerge.

My Lords, I draw attention to my interests in the register. It is very welcome that red-list passengers will now be separated, but, the longer the queues, the more likely the infection is to spread. It cannot be right to take 10 minutes per passenger to clear them through the system. Surely we can use the kind of evidence that is being used in other parts of the world, get our act together and, with the help of this excellent Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, put pressure on the Health Secretary and the Home Secretary to put even more resource in, and, above all, use technology and the experience in the rest of the world to get this right.

The noble Lord is entirely right: this is exactly what we have sought to do—namely, to front-end a huge amount of the administrative burden into the passenger landing form through the CMS computer system so that all the bookings, details and testing are pre-prepared before anyone arrives in the terminal. None the less, travel in the days of a pandemic is a complicated affair. Some people are trying to skip out on their responsibilities, and therefore there is an administrative burden. We hope to roll out e-gates for both the amber and red lists, once the red-list terminals are open. This will take a great pressure off the passenger point.

My Lords, how many of the passengers who flew in from India between 2 April and 23 April have now tested positive for Covid? If the Minister does not have the data to hand, please could he write to me with it? Given the guidance—slipped out by Ministers last week—for Hounslow residents to stay at home because of the Indian variant, what advice are the Government giving to all workers at Heathrow, whether they are from Hounslow or not, to keep them safe from Covid?

I do not have the statistic that the noble Baroness asked for, but I would be glad to write to her with it. The surge testing and vaccination in areas of VOC outbreak are now in many communities up and down the country that are not correlated with the presence of airports. They are distinct and specific to each of those communities: we work with the local DPH to ensure that the local outbreak plan is tailored to the needs of that community.

Can the Minister reassure his noble colleagues that sufficient attention is being paid by the already overworked Heathrow staff to heavily disabled passengers, such as Dr Ros Sinclair, who is a post-polio victim, with all that that implies? Although there is now a distinction between red and amber, highly vulnerable people will none the less suffer if amber lists and disabled passengers are merged. Is there any possibility of entirely separate lanes for those who are disabled?

My Lords, I pay tribute to the officials, Heathrow and the carriers for the provisions that they have put in place for those who have exceptional needs for travel. It is a truth that many people travel for health needs, and many must travel in order to address difficult circumstances that they may have. Therefore, it is entirely right that we put in place a system of exemptions and support for those who are either elderly or have some form of disability. My noble friend is entirely right that it is an unfortunate consequence of the administrative burden of red and amber processing at our ports that there are serious delays, and they fall most heavily on the vulnerable.

Sitting suspended.