Heathrow passengers were subjected to an hour-long queue at passport control today as extra Covid checks stretched staff – as it emerged some travellers were willingly accepting non-compliance fines to avoid giving their details over.
Screams of ‘get more staff’ rang out as crowds mounted to get through the secure area.
Travellers flying into Britain are having their Covid paperwork checked by both airlines and Border Force officials in an effort to finally halt new strains of the virus.
They are expected to show proof of a negative test or risk being stopped or fined £500.
Occupational therapist Libby Pannett returned to the UK after her mother’s funeral in New Zealand today – where there were no cases of coronavirus.
Describing the scene she faced after her long haul flight, the 52-year-old said: ‘It was awful coming through Heathrow, the queues are horrific. There were probably 1,000 people in front of me because they aren’t doing the fast track, they are not letting kids go through first either so there are all these screaming kids.
Libby Pannett, 52, an occupational therapist, said people were screaming ‘get more staff’
Nurse Anila Dominic, 27, said ‘there were not enough people’ at the passport checks
One of the testing centres at Heathrow airport where passengers can be screened for Covid
‘At passport control they have to check all your paperwork, it’s awful. There are not enough passport control officers and people were screaming out ‘get more staff.’ I thought there was going to be a real riot, some people were pushing their kids through saying ‘let this baby through’.’
Mrs Pannett, from Berkshire, added: ‘We have to have a test to come back to the UK now and that was really difficult because you had to do it in 72 hours. That was hard coming from New Zealand as there is a time difference. It cost me €276, they are ripping people off because they know you need to do it.
‘Getting the results was really stressful because I had to fly internally to get to Auckland and they had added in the time, it was running down the clock and it was over a Sunday when nobody works too.
‘I was worried that results wouldn’t come back in time. Emirates Airlines told me that when I landed in the UK it would be over the 72 hour period so I could run the risk of getting a fine in the UK or stay for another 12 hours and get another test in Dubai.
‘I had to make that choice, to risk the fine or stay in Dubai – it was really stressful and I was lucky I got through.’
Similarly, 27-year-old Salma spoke of the lack of passport control officers at the border and her worry that her Egyptian test was not ‘legitimate’ to match UK standards.
Tomas Kotlaga, 50 and Wieslaw Frednczak, 58, both work at sea on a ship and still got tested
Mohamed Akram, 24, adult nursing student, and Athmeeya Rao, 32, Boeing defence employee
Q&A: Do I need to have proof of a negative Covid-19 test when I arrive in Britain – and what standards must it meet?
What are the new rules for UK arrivals?
All of the travel corridors were scrapped yesterday, so arrivals from every destination will need to self-isolate for ten days, or receive a negative result from a Covid-19 test taken at least five days after they enter the UK.
Do I need to get a negative test when I arrive in the UK?
Yes, all arrivals into England – including British citizens – must test negative for Covid-19 up to 72 hours before leaving the country of departure. Your test will also be checked by the airline before you board a plane abroad.
What will you have to present at the UK border?
Border Force officials are carrying out spot checks on those arriving by air, land or sea – but they have so far been checking all arrivals, according to passengers.
Your Covid-19 negative test results must be presented in either English, French or Spanish. Translations are not accepted, and you must provide the original certificate.
The test result must be provided either as a physical printed document or via email or text message, which can be shown on a mobile phone. This must include:
- your name, matching it on your travel documents
- your date of birth or age
- the result of the test
- the date the test sample was collected or received by the test provider
- the name of the test provider and their contact details
- the name of the test device
Anyone arriving without a test result that includes all of the above information will be committing a criminal offence which could see them receive a £500 fine.
What test must you have?
The test must meet standards of ≥97% specificity and ≥80% sensitivity at viral loads above 100,000 copies/ml. The Government says this could include tests such as:
- a nucleic acid test, including a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test or derivative technologies, including loop-mediated isothermal amplification (Lamp) tests
- an antigen test, such as a test from a lateral flow device.
Will you have to prove your test meets requirements?
Yes. The Government says it is your responsibility to ensure a test meets minimum standards for sensitivity, specificity and viral load details – so you must check with your test provider that it meets those requirements.
You may need proof in the form of a letter from a test provider detailing its specificity and sensitivity levels.
What happens if I don’t have the correct documents?
New arrivals who flout the rules will face a minimum £500 fine while their flight operator will also be fined.
The passenger will then be let on their way without further action, but will still have to quarantine for ten days like everyone else arriving in the UK.
Separately, arrivals into England who do not self-isolate can face fines between £1,000 and £10,000.
What is the difference between the tests?
PCR tests, nasal and throat swab tests normally take between 12 and 48 hours to return results.
Lamp tests can return results in two hours, and lateral flow tests can generate results in less than 30 minutes.
Whichever test it is must meet the required performance standards listed by the Government.
Border Force agents will check that the information required is present on the notification. Provided the test meets the set criteria, then it will be accepted. If it does not, you could be fined – even with a negative test result.
What are the concerns over lateral flow tests?
There are fears that lateral flow tests might not be as reliable as PCR tests. But Innova makes a lateral flow test which has a sensitivity of more than 95 per cent for high viral loads – meeting UK Government requirements.
A trial of one lateral flow test used by the Government found that it detected 79 per cent of cases when administered by a trained professional but only 40 per cent if someone is self-swabbing. This is significantly lower than the more expensive but slower PCR tests which detect 70 to 99 per cent of positive cases.
Passengers are responsible for ensuring their test meets requirements and may be asked to provide proof.
Is there a specific list of accepted tests?
No. The Government does not provide a list of approved providers or tests worldwide. The passenger has to check that the test that they use meets the standards.
What are the exemptions?
It applies to arrivals who began their journeys in every country of the world, with the following exceptions:
- Northern Ireland
- Isle of Man
- Falkland Islands
- St Helena
There will also be an exemption until 4am on January 21 for people who began their journey in:
- Antigua and Barbuda
- St Lucia
There are also limited exemptions for the likes of hauliers, young children and train crew members.
Which countries are subject to travel bans?
Travel to and from all of South America, Portugal and Cape Verde was banned from 4am last Friday.
British and Irish nationals as well as people with residency rights will be exempt, but will have to self-isolate for ten days with their household on returning from any countries on the banned list.
A similar ban was put into place for South Africa on December 23 last year, after another new variant was identified by scientists. On January 9, the rules were also applied to Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Eswatini, Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho, Mozambique, Angola, Seychelles and Mauritius.
What are the rules on travel from South Africa?
Anyone arriving into the UK who has been in or transited through South Africa in the previous ten days will not be permitted entry to the UK. But British people will still be able to enter via indirect routes from South Africa.
Are there any differences for the US?
There are no specific differences for travellers arriving from the US, although it is understood some airlines are placing their own requirements on passengers.
The US Embassy in the UK states: ‘The test must be a viral test (NAAT or antigen test) to determine if you are currently infected with Covid-19. Travellers should avoid the antibody tests which look for prior infection.’
Landing from visiting her family in Cairo, the doctor said: ‘There were not many officers at border control so it took time to get everybody through. There were a lot of people in the queue but hopefully we were maintaining a safe-ish distance. It’s not the most comfortable of situations I’ve been in, it could be better definitely.
‘We had to get a test in Egypt before returning to the UK, I was worried about getting the test on time and that I would miss my flight. I was worried about the test I had, whether it was legitimate enough for them or whether they needed something extra like a government seal on it, that was stuff I had to think about.
‘In the space of 18 days I have had two tests and I need to get another one in the next five days so I don’t have to self isolate because I need to get back to work, I don’t have enough annual leave for that.’
Adult nursing student Mohamed Akram explained that he started running with his luggage after he landed at Heathrow to get ahead of the crowds of travellers heading for border control with their forms.
Having landed from Egypt, the 24-year-old said: ‘It was a bit busy on the borders here. I actually jogged from my flight so I didn’t have to wait for so long but when I looked back the queue was so long.
‘Most people were distancing, at least I did it, that is what matters. It took 48 hours to get my test results and thank God it came out as a negative.’
Returning from an extended trip to see his parents in Bangalore, India, after his flight was cancelled at the beginning of the new year, Athmeeya Rao claimed the mandatory test for UK-bound travellers should have come sooner.
The 32-year-old Boeing Defence employee said: ‘I had to have a test in India before flying to the UK, I just went to a hospital and it was quite straightforward. I got the results within six hours or so.
‘Once we landed at Heathrow there was a big queue at immigration as there were not that many officers. They were taking longer as they explained to people that they had to quarantine themselves for 10 days and other checks to see they had the right passenger forms.
‘I think for kids and families the queue is difficult but it wasn’t too crowded as we all had to distance. I think the mandatory tests to get back into the UK should have been done before, sooner than now.
‘It started when people were coming from Spain and Italy in the summer last year, they should have implemented it then but it’s better late than never.
‘There were a couple of passengers in India who did not have the pdf copy of their test, they just had the negative test result on a text message which didn’t count. I’m not sure if they were left behind or have to do a test once they got to the UK,’ he added.
Queuing outside the Heathrow testing centre with a dozen others were seamen Tomas Kotlaga aged 50 years and work colleague 58-year-old Wieslaw Frednczak.
The pair were awaiting a rapid flow test before their flight back home to Poland today.
They said: ‘We booked a fast Covid test at the Heathrow testing centre before our flight departs to Amsterdam and on to Poland today. We should get our results within 30 minutes.
‘We don’t understand why we must have the test, because we have been effectively quarantining at sea. We work four weeks on the ship and then four weeks at home, we come here often for work.’
Nurse Anila Dominic who had flown from India waited for 45 minutes before she could pass through border control. The 27-year-old said: ‘I had to wait nearly 45 minutes. There were not enough people, that is why it took a long time. If there were more people there to check it would be easier for passengers. They were asking for cover test, the passenger locator form and my passport.’
Simlairly, Physics PhD student Megha Emerse – who had travelled from Kerala in Southern India – said: ‘I was a little bit tense because I didn’t know all of the new rules and procedures but it was fine and everything was explained.
‘The queues weren’t good, I had to wait an hour. But it was calm and everyone was distancing,’ the 26-year-old University of Nottingham student added.
But there has emerged a worrying trend for people just to accept a financial punishment rather than to hand their information to officials.
Lucy Moreton, professional officer for ISU, the union for borders, immigration and customs workers, said she had heard reports of some arrivals choosing to pay the fine because they don’t want to give their personal details on the locator form.
But border officials are powerless if it is a British citizen.
She said: ‘We have people landing and choosing the fine instead, it’s not common but it does happen.
‘We can speculate that it is because they don’t for some reason want the UK government to have their personal details.
‘We can’t detain or arrest them if they have a right of entry into the UK. We can only refuse people who don’t have right of entry.’ Those flouting the rules face fines of between £200 and £6,400.
On Monday there were chaotic scenes as arrivals queued for up to two hours at the border at Heathrow airport before being let through, due to the extra documents border guards need to check.
Ms Moreton said: ‘There was a little bit of a moment yesterday when Border Force did allow queues to build up which shouldn’t have happened, but when you’re seeing documents for the first time with no background it does make it slower and with the urge to try and check everything and keep variant viruses out of the UK, we checked too many.
‘But then on the other hand maybe we should be checking all of them.’ Fines for not having a proper test are issued as fixed penalty notices and do not stay on a criminal record.’
But they continued to face delays after landing in the UK as officials checked each passenger arriving had a negative test – even though they will have all already been checked by their airline when boarding a flight in a foreign country.
Passengers can be fined a minimum of £500 for not complying with the rules, but the Home Office confirmed today that they are then let on their way – meaning dozens of people with Covid-19 could have been let into the UK since the rules were brought in.
However they must still follow the rules on quarantining for ten days like all arrivals into the UK – and those who breach those regulations can be fined up to £10,000.
The fines for not having a proper test are issued as fixed penalty notices and do not stay on a criminal record.
The Home Office has not yet revealed whether those fined were penalised for having no test at all or for their test certificate not fulfilling the required criteria.
Many passengers were also surprised by long queues, after they had already been checked by their airlines when boarding flights abroad – with some saying the carriers were being the ‘strictest’ in enforcing the rules in terms of people maintaining social distancing.
While official figures for arrivals at Heathrow are not yet available, tens of thousands of people are estimated to be coming in to the airport every day at the moment – after about 35,000 a day arrived last month.
Queues again built up yesterday in Heathrow’s immigration hall with some travellers reporting having to wait up to an hour before their documentation was checked at Terminal Two, and up to 30 minutes at Terminal Five.
All the electronic passport gates were closed forcing overseas as well as British passport holders to undergo a face-to-face check. British and European Union passport holders were funnelled into one queue while other passport holders into another.
Passengers arrive at London Heathrow Airport after the new rules on Covid-19 tests came in
Noelia Moreno (left) and Cristina Torrance (right) both arrived at London Heathrow Airport’s Terminal Five. Ms Torrance said she took a £40 Antigen test before leaving Seville and arriving on a British Airways flight.
Marissa Leo, a student arriving at London Heathrow’s Terminal Five from Chicago, said she spent 30 minutes queuing to show her documents to immigration officials. She said: ‘I had to show the PCR test and locator form but it was all very smooth’
A passenger leaves Heathrow Airport’s Terminal Two this morning with all arrivals having to present negative Covid-19 test
Air passengers wait for a lift in the international arrivals hall at London Heathrow Airport’s Terminal Two this morning
They had to present their passports, a negative test – in most cases a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) – and locator form listing where their mandatory ten-day quarantine will take place in Britain.
Staff instructed arrivals to keep a 6ft (2m) distance from each other but passengers said people ended up facing each other and cramming together.
Initially, only four officials were checking paperwork but as queues lengthened an additional four Border Force staff were brought in to help.
Molly Jarvis, who arrived on an overnight flight from Atlanta, Georgia, told MailOnline at Heathrow: ‘Lots of people ended up facing each other as they waited.
‘I was a bit concerned about the social distancing and glad to get out. All the e-gates were closed and when I arrived there were only four people at the passport checks. Another four came out.’
Ms Jarvis, a US citizen who lives in London, said the official looked at the time and date of her negative PCR test, adding: ‘They were very thorough and wanted to check what day I had taken the test.’
Aviation expert Julian Bray told MailOnline: ‘It’s been flagged up for ages that anybody coming into the country has got to have the right paperwork and has got to have the negative test. I understand the fines they are handing out are as a minimum because I heard earlier that it’s anything between £500 and £1,000.
‘They can come in but they’re going to have to isolate for ten days. They have been told to isolate for ten days so there’s no point (in having a test) then because the idea of the pre-flight test, which has to be done 72 hours in advance of the flight, is that it’ll give the airline an idea of whether they’ve had the test or not.
‘But it’s surprising the airlines didn’t pick up on the deficiencies. The ground crews, quite often they’re a separate company, and they’re hired in. They’re not actually airline employees.
‘If they’re tasked with checking the paperwork, it sounds like there’s a deficiency in the paperwork, so they might have had the test but they weren’t given the right paperwork, which comes back to the fact that the Department for Transport directions are not that clear. The whole situation has been very shoddy, the way it’s been rolled out.’
With far fewer flights arriving at Terminal Five, passengers faced a 30 minute wait to have their documents checked.
A mostly empty London Heathrow Airport Terminal Five departures hall is pictured this morning
A woman walks out of London Heathrow Airport’s Terminal Five this morning as air passengers continue to arrive
A mostly empty international arrivals hall at London Heathrow Airport’s Terminal Five this morning as people arrive in the UK
Hardly anyone is to be seen in the arrivals hall at London Heathrow Airport’s Terminal Five this morning
London Heathrow Airport’s Terminal Five is quiet today with air travel having plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic
Marissa Leo, a student arriving from Chicago, said she spent 30 minutes queuing to show her documents to immigration officials.
She said: ‘I had to show the PCR test and locator form but it was all very smooth. Fortunately there were not many flights so the queue was not to long.’
Joan Davenport, who flew in from Toronto, said her wait to show her documents was less than 30 minutes. She said: ‘There were only about 45 people on the flight, so only a short wait which was fine. It was all good.’
The UK Government has said a PCR, lateral flow and antigen test were acceptable for entry into the UK.
On the five flights from the US passengers interviewed said they had taken a PCR test as this was widely available in America.
Meanwhile, Cristina Torrance said she took a £40 Antigen test before leaving Seville and arriving on a British Airways flight. But to make sure she could guarantee entry to the UK she also took a PCR test.
Ms Torrance, who works at the Natural History Museum in London, said: ‘I decided to get the PCR as that is the most accepted and I wanted to make sure I would get into the country and go back to work.
Ms Torrance, a Spanish national who arrived with her friend Noelis Moreno, said they waited 30 minutes to present their paperwork to Border Force officials.
Sally Amoki, who flew into Heathrow’s Terminal Two from Ghana, said: ‘I didn’t mind showing all the paperwork. I had a PCR test and the airline check in asked to see that. At passport control they looked over the papers. It makes sense as you have to be careful. You have to follow the rules.’
Another traveller who gave her name as Debbie was reassured that documents were double checked.
She has had four PCR tests while on an extended holiday to see family in Mumbai, India, and said: ‘It is reassuring that everything is being checked and checked again. The airline made sure everyone had a negative test before they could board. It made the flight much safer as you know no one is carrying the virus.’
But Debbie, who lives in London, was less happy with a two-hour wait to clear immigration.
Her Air India flight landed at 12.30pm and she emerged with her bags at 2.40pm. She said: ‘There were only two people manning the desks to check passports. It was ridiculous to queue up for over two hours .Most of the desks were empty yet there long queues.’
Anne Lammel, arriving at Heathrow on a flight from Bahrain, was happy to have her documentation for entry into the UK checked twice.
She said: ‘You have to show passports when boarding and when you land. It does slow things up a bit, but the flight was pretty much empty so there are less people which means things move quicker.’
All arrivals must show proof of a PCR test and a completed locator form which lists the address where travellers will quarantine for ten days. Few passengers said they would join the test to release scheme which cuts self isolation from ten days to five.
Government guidance states that UK citizens are allowed to be boarded on planes if they cannot get a test at their transit airport and are being blocked from entering the country it is in.
Mrs Walton said her daughter told her three other Britons were also barred from boarding.
However, after several calls to the British embassy in Spain Mrs Walton said her daughter had finally been allowed on an Iberia plane back to Heathrow last night.
In another case, Hannah Holland, 23, from Sheffield, was due to land at Heathrow yesterday but was barred by check-in staff in the US.
She was booked to travel on an American Airlines flight from Philadelphia via Chicago’s O’Hare airport, which was due to land in London at 8.20am.
But Chicago check-in staff said her rapid ‘lateral flow’ test and accompanying health certificate were not acceptable.
Miss Holland, a dual British-American citizen, had been helping her mother care for her grandfather in Philadelphia.
She said: ‘I just couldn’t believe it… it was a test I had to pay for at a local, well-respected health clinic in Philadelphia and was specifically for people who had flights that needed more urgent results.’ She added: ‘I was getting really weepy.’
Miss Holland, a volunteer in Africa with the Peace Corps until the pandemic began, managed to get a flight back to Philadelphia and is now considering whether to seek another test to return to the UK or stay there.
An American Airlines spokesman said: ‘The certificate did not specify the name of the test device as required, and therefore travel to the UK could not be permitted as per government guidelines.’
A Department for Transport spokesman said: ‘Passengers travelling to the UK must provide proof of a negative coronavirus test which meets the performance standards set out by the Government in the guidance published on gov.uk.
‘The type of test could include a PCR test or antigen test, including a lateral flow test.
‘Anyone who cannot provide the necessary documentation may not be allowed to board their flight.’
As part of the new measures, announced by Boris Johnson on Friday, Border Force have ramped up checks on arrivals at airports and ports.
Arrivals complained that checking all passengers’ negative test health certificates was taking too long. The certificate now has to be checked along with a locator form stating where they will be self-isolating for ten days.
Gabrielle Rivers, 31, a research fellow at Oxford University, flew from Washington to London and was stuck in a queue at border control for two hours before showing proof of her negative result and passenger locator form.
She said: ‘I was pretty surprised at the length of the queue. I don’t know how they would expect old people to cope. They are crowding people together in tight spaces, if we didn’t have Covid then, we will now.
‘It was very rammed. It was pretty heavily regulated. The airlines are being the strictest.’
Eric Campbell, 23, who arrived in London yesterday from Kampala, Uganda, said hordes of people were cramped together at border control.
His £50 PCR coronavirus test was checked as well as his locator form after an hour’s wait. ‘It was chaotic, the line was far too long and there were kids running around everywhere,’ he said.
‘There were only a few people at each desk which is why the border was rammed as they spent a great deal going through each person’s document. It defeats the purpose, but I am glad it’s being done.’
Avis Agustin, 36, a nurse from Singapore, arrived at Heathrow yesterday and was shocked by the large queues, spending an hour in line before border checks.
She said: ‘I was confused at people in the queue not social distancing. They are too easy on people here. In Singapore, if you come, you must stay in a hotel for two weeks which the government tells you to.’
Passengers complained that the closure of the self-scan ePassport gates contributed to delays as some said people were pulled out of the queue and fined over incorrect paperwork.
In Terminal Two, suitcases stacked up by carousels as travellers were stuck at border control but by yesterday afternoon the queues had gone.
New rules scrapping 63 ‘travel corridors’ with countries with low infection rates also came into effect at 4am yesterday, meaning all arrivals from those countries now have to quarantine. The policy will be reviewed on February 15.
On Sunday it emerged the government is considering a further crackdown after ministers asked officials to draw up plans which would see travellers forced to quarantine in hotels upon arrival.