Ministers have urged Heathrow airport to dedicate a terminal to processing passengers arriving from “red list” countries, amid fears that the number of people coming from India could swell and create a more dangerous environment for Covid variants to spread.

The Guardian understands the Home Office has suggested Terminal 4 be used to separate those who have travelled from places where entry is banned for all apart from UK citizens and residents, and avoid them mixing with people coming from safer countries. Additional Border Force staff would also be provided to help deal with incoming passengers.

India’s addition to the red list from 4am on Friday due to significantly rising case numbers and a new variant has prompted fears in Whitehall about queues in the arrival halls at UK airports, as people wait to have their passport and other documents including passenger locator forms and proof of negative test results checked manually.

E-gates are still shut, significantly slowing the rate at which Border Force staff can process passengers.

A government source said while lots of effort was going into reopening them, plans to bundle the extra paperwork required because of the pandemic into a digital document may not be ready for 17 May – the earliest that international travel could resume again.

Another insider said ministers were encouraging airports to separate out people coming from red list countries and other passengers, but in some cases that was not working. “People just bunch up,” they said. “There’s a massive space provided for them but people don’t stick to 2 metres.”

Three flights from India arrived at Heathrow on Tuesday, including two from Mumbai and one from Delhi, probably carrying travellers rushing home and keen to avoid the Friday deadline after which all arrivals will be forced to quarantine in a hotel for 10 days.

British Airways has cancelled about half its flights from Delhi to Heathrow this week, and said in a response to customers on Twitter asking about the availability of tickets to travel from India to the UK: “The flights all seem to be full.”

On Monday the health secretary, Matt Hancock, said India was being added to the red list after 103 cases of the variant first discovered there were found in the UK, and that the “vast majority” had links to international travel – suggesting there has been some community transmission.

He added scientists are working to see if the variant has any “concerning characteristics” such as being more transmissible or resistant to vaccines, and when asked if the current jabs approved for use are effective against the variant, said: “We simply don’t know that … that is the core of my concern.”

A Heathrow spokesperson said: “Heathrow has remained open throughout the pandemic at great cost to ensure that the UK’s supply lines are protected and UK citizens can return home and we will work with government to ensure that remains the case.

“We will explore with ministers the possibility of an economically viable dedicated arrivals facility for passengers from red countries. Our main concern is that UK Border Force is able to provide an acceptable level of service to all arriving passengers.”

The idea that arrivals from red list countries could be diverted to a reopened Terminal 4 was privately dismissed by industry sources. One described it as “preposterous”, adding: “The Home Office would do well to take a crash course in airport operations before making suggestions.”

Heathrow has kept Terminal 4 closed since the first coronavirus lockdown in 2020 and continues to make losses of about £5m a day, even with much of its operations, including one runway, mothballed to reduce costs. Many staff remain furloughed and reopening a terminal would probably require weeks of preparation, including safety and maintenance checks, with costs that are regarded as prohibitive even for fully-laden flights, let alone a small number of returning passengers.

Direct flights are already banned from many red list countries. BA, the major carrier at Heathrow, is operating no flights from red list countries except Pakistan, and expects to further reduce its remaining schedules from there and India after Friday.

This content first appear on the guardian

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