Border staff received guidelines on how to execute England’s new “red list” quarantine rules in an email two-and-a-half hours before they came into force, with one worker describing the rollout as “an absolute joke”.
British and Irish nationals or UK residents arriving from a list of 33 countries are now required to book a 10-day quarantine package costing £1,750 per adult, as the government seeks to limit the spread of new and potentially more dangerous coronavirus variants arriving from abroad.
Border Force sources told the Guardian that all immigration control staff had received a lengthy email with five attachments, detailing official guidance for carrying out the new checks at the border, at 9.25pm on Sunday. The rules came into effect at midnight.
Significant numbers of staff would not have seen the email when they started their shifts on Monday, the sources said. One Border Force operative on duty at Heathrow airport during the first day of the checks, described the process as “an absolute joke”. The Home Office was approached for comment.
Arrivals who have been in a red-list country in the last 10 days queue in a separate lane from other travellers at one of five airports. The significant majority on Monday arrived at Heathrow.
Immigration control staff must check travellers’ completed passenger locator form, hotel quarantine booking, a confirmed negative Covid test and evidence of two additional test bookings for while they are in quarantine.
The email sent to Border Force staff by senior Home Office staff acknowledges that the new process “will be a lot to absorb” and adds there will be “bumps along the way”. Sources told the Guardian the process was lengthy and queues were manageable but slow-moving on Monday.
After going through the airport protocols, security guards employed by the private contractor G4S transport the arrivals to designated hotels for quarantine.
A spokesman for the PCS union, which represents Border Force staff, said: “It is a disgrace our members in Border Force only received new guidelines on hotel quarantine late last night. It’s vital that Border Force are equipped to deal with helping the public stay Covid safe. However, many feel underprepared and under valued by a department that is not doing its job.”
One law firm, PGMBM, said it was preparing to launch a legal challenge to the new policy, arguing it could be breach of article 5 of the European convention on human rights, the right to liberty and security. The firm says the enforced quarantine of people without knowing whether they have Covid and are therefore infectious could potentially constitute a breach and should be subject to judicial review.
The new quarantine policy prompted concern about lengthy bottlenecks at passport control, especially at Heathrow, but arrivals on Monday had to queue for under an hour.
A Heathrow spokesperson said: “In recent days, passengers have spent as long as five hours queueing at the border. This is totally unacceptable and we will continue closely monitoring this situation to better understand the impact this policy has on the passenger journey.”
Gatwick, Birmingham and London City airports are also permitted to take red-list arrivals, but have all said the numbers are likely to be significantly low. A fifth airport, Farnborough in Hampshire, is also taking arrivals on private jets used for business travel.