Border Force agents are racing to install new technology to avert the threat of long queues at airports and ports once restrictions ease for double-jabbed British travellers later this month.
Airlines this week reported surging bookings after ministers announced that British passengers returning to England from countries on the government’s amber list will not have to quarantine from July 19 if they have received two doses of coronavirus vaccine.
The move to exempt double-jabbed travellers, and children, from the self-isolation rule is a significant step in the reopening of mass travel, but has reignited concerns over huge queues at airports as officials check coronavirus paperwork.
Grant Shapps, transport secretary, expects travel to be “disrupted” this summer, but said upgraded electronic passport gates which are currently being installed at the border should help cut queues.
“I think obviously travel will be more disrupted than it was back in 2019, clearly, because we have an important job to do to make sure we keep coronavirus under check,” Shapps told the BBC on Friday.
The government has graded countries for coronavirus risk under a traffic light system, with major tourist destinations including France, Italy and most of Spain on the amber list, which requires returning passengers to self-isolate and take expensive Covid tests.
The same amber list exemptions will come into force in Northern Ireland a week later, while Scotland and Wales have not yet announced any exemptions.
Border officers have “grave concerns” about queues, which could stretch to several hours, according to Lucy Moreton, professional officer at the ISU, the trade union for immigration staff.
Airports are expecting passenger numbers in August to roughly match last year’s levels, which were a fifth of 2019’s.
Officials have been upgrading the electronic passport gates at the border to be able to read from passengers’ passports whether they have filled in the right documentation, including whether they say they have been vaccinated.
Airport executives are confident this will cut queueing times, after waits as long as seven hours developed at Heathrow earlier this year when Border Force was checking each passenger manually.
Half of all e-gates will be working by the end of July, including most of those at Heathrow, the UK’s busiest airport, Border Force has assured airports.
Still, Moreton said she does not expect all e-gates to be fully upgraded until September at the earliest, and added that families will still have to queue as children under 12 cannot use e-gates.
Shapps said he expects there to be longer queues at check-in gates abroad rather than at the UK border, as airlines will be asked to seek proof of vaccination from passengers before boarding, via the NHS app or a letter from the health service.
Passengers will continue to pay for tests before travelling to the UK and on the second day after arriving, potentially adding hundreds of pounds to each trip.
The quarantine exemption will only be available to people who have been jabbed by the NHS in the UK, but Shapps said he hoped to extend it to passengers who had been vaccinated in other countries soon.
“We will do all we can to smooth the process, including the rollout of our e-gate upgrade programme during the summer and deploying additional Border Force officers,” the Home Office said.