There can be few things more irritating than arriving home after a 12-hour flight, laden with children and luggage, only to find the immigration hall at the airport heaving with passengers waiting to get through passport control. When it becomes clear that there are too few border staff manning the desks, irritation can turn to anger. And if it is bad for UK arrivals, imagine the teeth-gnashing frustration felt by non-EU travellers, who are subject to much more rigorous scrutiny. What a great way to start a holiday.
At Heathrow’s Terminal 5 last week, thousands of travellers waited for two hours or more for clearance, and extra police were drafted in after a group of Americans started shouting at staff. One frustrated Spanish passenger barged through passport control, only to be intercepted by counter-terrorism officers. Nor is the problem confined to Heathrow. At Birmingham airport last month, about 20 passengers stormed border control after a two-hour wait. One witness described how holidaymakers made “a dash for it, pushing Border Force staff aside… There were scuffles, people being knocked to the ground, and then resignation from the powers that be, who stepped aside to let the crowd through.”
Stephen Barnett from Kent, a regular airline traveller, told the BBC he often queued for two hours to get back into the country. “This issue has been worsening for months,” he said. “Last week it was utter bedlam… Three positions were manned on the EU section, out of 15. It is a national disgrace.”
Understandably, the airlines and British Airports Authority, which runs Heathrow, have been anxious to dump the blame on the Border Force. BAA staff handed out leaflets to people in the queues last weekend urging them to complain – thereby inviting the wrath of officials who accused the operator of inflaming the situation.
The Home Office thinks that these scenes are a sign of vigilance; as Damian Green, the immigration minister, told MPs on Monday, “security of our borders is the first priority”. By yesterday morning, however, with Willie Walsh of BA, among others, accusing ministers of complacency, the penny finally dropped at No 10. Theresa May, the Home Secretary, was summoned to Downing Street to explain herself, and Damian Green headed to Heathrow to see for himself what was going on. In the meantime, more Border Force staff were dispatched from around the country to help out, and greater flexibility is being introduced into the rosters to ensure peak times are properly covered.