Efforts to check Covid border papers could buckle under the weight of additional demand if international travel does resume next month, it has been warned.
Speaking to Sky News on Tuesday (20 April), Immigration Service Union (ISU) professional officer Lucy Moreton said there needed to be a solution to the lengthy checks currently being carried out at the UK border, and stated she was unsure whether something would be done by 17 May.
Asked whether she had concerns the additional checks could overwhelm airlines and ISU members, Moreton said: "Absolutely. You can get an entire aircraft that has failed to do one of the four bits of paper they have to."
Moreton referenced the recently reported six-hour queues at Heathrow airport, which became the subject of debate at a government transport committee hearing last week.
"What’s causing the hold-ups is the requirement we check 100% of arrivals," said Moreton. "I’m not saying Border Force staff shouldn’t do that, but airlines could help by ensuring when people check in they’ve got all the documentation.
"It already takes nearly twice as long to check someone’s details at the moment, to check they have all the coronavirus compliance stuff. If they haven’t got it to hand, or if they haven’t complied or got part of it, that delay time shoots up – it can shoot up to as much as an hour.
"We need all the help we can get to ensure the people who present themselves to the UK border have done everything they need to do and have got those papers ready for us to see."
Moreton was joined by Iata country manager UK and Ireland, Simon McNamara, who insisted airlines were checking "upstream" and echoed Moreton’s comments that the issue was 100% manual checking. "That needs to change," he said.
"That needs to be moved back to spot checks when international travel restarts on 17 May, or we need to look to digitise and automate the process because checking bits of paper with large volumes of passengers is just going to result in even more unacceptable queuing times."
Moreton said airline checks weren’t proving effective. "We are still getting significant numbers [of people] who have only partially complied," she said.
"It’s quite rare these days to have someone who’s not done any of it at all, but there are quite a lot of bits of paper – it’s a very disjointed system. And not all carriers are as good at checking upstream as we’d like.
"Ideally, we would go back to spot checking. These queues put everybody at danger, they put everyone at risk, not just from transmission [of Covid] – travellers are really frustrated and they tend to take that out on the staff. Nobody comes to work to be verbally or physically abused.
"There needs to be a solution. Is there going to be something in place by 17 May? I’m not certain there is."
McNamara said he wanted to see the government honour its commitment in the report of the Global Travel Taskforce to digitise passenger locator forms. "The dates they’ve committed to are extremely vague. We want that done by 17 May, and this is not beyond the realms of possibility."
McNamara also called on the government to work more closely with industry on solutions, such as working with Iata’s Travel Pass initiative to allow passengers to store and verify test and vaccine certificates via an app. "We’re finding it hard to get through to them how industry can actually help," he said, though.
Moreton said linking all the various entry requirements up digitally would be a challenge, and said she sympathised with Iata’s difficulties getting through to government.
She added: "The sooner we can get the eGates open again, the sooner we can get to an assured level of checking. It’s got to be more than just, ’tick this box and promise faithfully you’ve done a pre-departure test’, that’s not good enough.
"We still see thousands of fake pre-departure test certificates every week so there’s got to be an electronic means of verifying that it is genuinely a pre-departure test, that it genuinely meets the requirements."