Warning over airport queues that could be breeding ground for Covid - 'People put passports in their mouths'

A top union official has said she's "seriously concerned" about the potential spread of coronavirus in airport queues when tourists start returning from their holidays.

Lucy Moreton, of the Immigration Services Union (ISU), said there is often little social distancing in border queues and that many people have a habit of putting their passports in their mouths.

In an interview with Yahoo News UK as thousands of people departed on international flights on Monday after England’s ban on foreign travel was lifted, Moreton warned those holidaymakers “inevitably need to be prepared for a lengthy wait at the border" when they return.

Passengers prepare to board an easyJet flight to Faro, Portugal, at Gatwick Airport in West Sussex after the ban on international leisure travel for people in England was lifted following the further easing of lockdown restrictions. Picture date: Monday May 17, 2021. (Photo by Gareth Fuller/PA Images via Getty Images)
Passengers board a flight to Portugal on Monday at Gatwick Airport. A top union official has warned of long border queues, and the potential spread of coronavirus, when people return to England. (Gareth Fuller/PA)

She added any problem with an individual's Covid-19 documentation could cause a delay of one hour.

Border staff will have to check every single passenger locator form when people return to England, meaning long queues are likely from next week.

Moreton, professional officer at the ISU, which represents borders, immigration and customs workers, said these queues could be a breeding ground for Covid-19 transmission, for both passengers and staff.

“There’s no social distancing in those queues,” she said, “and people will for some bizarre reason put their passports in their mouth. I don’t know why but they always have done.

“So the risk to staff of being handed these documents… and being too close to someone for too long… it’s been an ever-present risk all the way through.

“But as more and more people travel and social restrictions in the UK ease, staff are worried people will behave in other countries as if they’re in the UK, infect themselves and bring it back.”

Moreton said an “absolutely key” way to avoid long queues is simply for every passenger to have their documentation ready.

She said: “As soon as somebody has to ferret in their bags you’ve got a delay.”

Passengers from "green" and "amber" list countries need to have taken a Covid test; booked and paid for one or two further Covid tests after arrival; and completed a passenger locator form.

Moreton spelled out what will happen if one of these things hasn't been done properly: “If they’ve not complied, not done one of the three bits they need to do, issuing the notice of intention to fine and sorting it out can take up to an hour per passenger and that’s where the majority of delays lie.”

Border staff, as the first uniformed officers that passengers see, have already been subjected to verbal abuse due to long delays, Moreton said. "That’s going to continue," she added.

UK airports have urged the government to introduce automated technology that can scan people's passenger locator forms and reduce queue sizes.

The Home Office has said e-gates will be rolled out "during the summer".