Ministers want Heathrow to dedicate a terminal to passengers arriving from ‘red list’ countries amid fears the airport has become a Covid ‘breeding ground’.
The Home Office is keen for Terminal 4 — which has been shut since last year — to process travellers from coronavirus hotspots with troublesome virus variants.
Officials are bracing for a huge influx of red list arrivals after India was added due to the emergence of a new variant and spiking infections in the country.
Up to 5,000 passengers are expected to fly back to the UK over the next 48 hours as part of the rush to beat Friday’s 4am deadline, after which British nationals arriving from India will need to isolate in a quarantine hotel at their own expense.
No10 wants Heathrow to prevent red list arrivals from mixing with passengers from low risk countries, with travellers complaining of queues of up to six hours with little social distancing.
Between 8,000 and 10,000 passengers are pouring into the airport each day, with up to 1,000 thought to be from countries already on the red list.
Heathrow shut terminals 3 and 4 — primarily for long-haul and European travel — last May during the first national lockdown, with all flights being redirected to terminals 2 and 5. It has led to thousands of passengers from high and low risk countries being funneled into the same arrival and departure lounges.
Rules at border control also mean every passenger has to show forms proving which country they’ve come from and their reasons for visiting the UK.
Lucy Moreton, of the Border Force union, said it had led to arrivals from red, amber and green countries mixing in a confined space for hours. Asked if this meant it was a breeding ground for infection, Ms Moreton told MPs: ‘Yes, very much so.
Rules at border control mean every passenger has to present forms proving which country they’ve come from and their reasons for visiting the UK, leading to queues of up to six hours in arrival halls. Pictured: Long, winding queues with little social distancing at Heathrow on April 12
The Covid variants circulating in the UK: Officials fear allowing passengers from red list countries to mix with those from low risk nations could fuel the spread of dangerous variants
No10 only announced India was being added to the UK’s travel ‘red list’ yesterday, and the measures won’t come into until 4am on Friday. India is currently battling a second wave of cases, but the numbers per capita are nowhere near levels seen during the UK’s winter peak
The UK’s hugely successful vaccination programme and brutal four-month lockdown has squashed deaths to double-digits. But India’s fatalities have started to climb on the back of a spike in infections
‘When it’s so slow and the queues are so bad, then absolutely it’s a significant risk to the border force staff that are doing it, and to the travellers that are standing in those queues.’
E-gates are still shut and every form needs to be checked by hand, which has slowed the rate at which staff can process passengers.
Cases of Indian Covid variant may have DOUBLED in a week
India’s troublesome Covid variant has been spotted more than 200 times in Britain, MailOnline can reveal — amid warnings Number 10 was ‘weeks too late’ with its travel ban.
The most up-to-date data from the Government’s official coronavirus variant tracking programme shows 103 infected people have had the mutant strain.
But separate figures published by the same group of experts show the B.1.617 variant has actually been spotted 215 times – with it making up around one in every 200 positive swabs that are analysed.
Scientists said it was a ‘very troubling’ number and that it was proof the variant was spreading, with 85 per cent of samples detected in the past month.
However, health chiefs say some of the cases will be duplicates because the majority are linked to foreign travel.
Everyone flying in to England from India – and anywhere abroad – currently has to take two Covid tests while quarantining at home for 10 days.
British experts are currently managing to sequence the majority of positive tests because cases are so low.
The development comes after other scientists and senior Labour politicians slammed the Government for allowing thousands of travellers from India to pour into the UK every week despite knowing about the variant for nearly a month.
A Government source confirmed ministers were in talks with the airport about the proposal, adding: ‘It has been put forward to Heathrow.’
Heathrow shut Terminal 4 last May during the first national lockdown and announced plans in December to keep it closed until the end of 2021.
The terminal was mainly used for long-haul and European flights, with AirFrance, Etihad Airlines, and KLM being some of the major airlines which operate out of it.
A Heathrow spokesman said: ‘Heathrow has remained open throughout the pandemic at great cost to ensure 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 list countries.
‘Our main concern is that UK Border Force is able to provide an acceptable level of service to all arriving passengers.’
So far at least 103 people in the UK have tested positive for the Indian variant which sparked the travel ban to the country this week.
But the variant itself has actually been spotted more than 200 times in the UK.
It is feared B.1.617 spreads easier than older strains and has mutations which help it evade vaccines — but to what degree remains unclear. Scientists do not believe it is any deadlier than the strains currently circulating in Britain.
The Government was widely criticised for allowing thousands of travellers from India to pour into the UK every week despite knowing about the variant for nearly a month.
But Boris Johnson last night denied there had been an unnecessary delay in adding India to the red list.
He highlighted that the Covid variant was still ‘under investigation’ rather than a strain of concern.
Being on the red list means anyone who is not a UK or Irish resident or a British citizen will be banned from entering the country if they have been in India in the last 10 days.
British nationals will need to isolate in a quarantine hotel at their own expense, costing up to £1,750 per person.
The Indian variant has 13 mutations that separate it from the original Covid virus that emerged in China — but the two main ones are named E484Q and L452R.
Scientists suspect these two alterations can help it to transmit faster and to get past immune cells made in response to older variants.
The L452R mutation is also found on the Californian variant (B.1.429), even though the two evolved independently. It is thought to make the American strain 20 per cent more infectious.
The E484Q mutation is very similar to the one found in the South African and Brazil variants known as E484K, which can help the virus evade antibodies.
The South African variant is thought to make vaccines about 30 per cent less effective at stopping infections, but it’s not clear what effect it has on severe illness.
Professor Sharon Peacock, of PHE, claimed there was ‘limited’ evidence of E484Q’s effect on immunity and vaccines. Lab studies have suggested it may be able to escape some antibodies, but to what degree remains uncertain.
Revealed: The countries on the UK’s red list
- Cape Verde
- Democratic Republic of the Congo
- French Guiana
- South Africa
- United Arab Emirates (UAE)