London’s Heathrow airport will open a dedicated terminal to process passengers arriving from high-risk “red list” countries, following criticism that queues in arrivals halls risked becoming “super-spreading” events.
The UK’s busiest airport on Friday said it will open an arrivals space for red-list passengers in Terminal 3 from June 1, which has been mothballed since last spring following a collapse in passenger numbers during the coronavirus pandemic.
The airport will then move the “red list” arrivals to Terminal 4, which is also empty, “as soon as operationally possible”. Management hope to reopen Terminal 3 to its normal services if enough passengers start flying again over the summer.
Heathrow is in discussions with the government over who should pay to open the terminal, one person close to the process said.
“Red-list routes will likely be a feature of UK travel for the foreseeable future as countries vaccinate their populations at different rates. We’re adapting Heathrow to this longer-term reality,” the airport said in a statement.
Concern has been expressed that passengers arriving from high-risk countries are mingling with other arrivals in the airport’s arrivals halls, particularly as queues at passport control have stretched into several hours on occasion.
Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said this week that allowing long queues to build up at arrivals was “irresponsible” of Border Force, which manages immigration at the airport. The force has been checking the paperwork of every arriving passenger.
“If you have people waiting for long periods of time in a not brilliantly ventilated arrivals hall, often standing very close to each other, well that’s a super-spreading risk,” she told the BBC’s World At One programme this week.
Ministers have put more than 40 countries, including India, South Africa and Brazil on the red list. This means that returning passengers have to quarantine in hotels at their own expense for 10 days and take PCR tests on days two and eight to test for variants of Covid-19.
Passengers arriving from red-list countries are currently separated into their own lanes at immigration, and the airport has also installed improved ventilation.
“[The] system has been designed by the government and has several layers of protection to keep passengers and colleagues safe,” the airport said.
Heathrow has blamed the queues on Border Force for not providing enough staff to process each passenger individually, and has warned it will divert planes to other airports if queue times build above four hours.
But Home Office officials point to the highest level of staffing since the 2012 Olympics, and maintain that problems have arisen when airlines have allowed people to travel without the right paperwork, such as proof of a negative test. This leaves officers needing to take up to 40 minutes to process a single passenger.
The Civil Aviation Authority has issued more than 600 fines to airlines for carrying passengers with incorrect paperwork.
In the medium term, both the government and aviation industry hope that improvements to electronic passport gates to allow them to read Covid-19 documents will significantly speed up the process.