Travellers to Britain could be forced to quarantine in airport hotels under plans to be discussed by ministers today as travel chaos continues at the border.
Amid growing doubts over the summer holiday season, the Cabinet’s Covid operations committee will thrash out how to tighten border controls, pitting Cabinet members against each other.
Any new restrictions would be a further blow to the beleaguered travel industry and put the holiday plans of millions at risk.
It comes as Britain’s airports are already struggling to cope with demand, with passengers queuing for hours on Thursday to get through passport control at Heathrow as the border situation worsened.
The lines were so long staff were said to have handed out free water to exhausted travellers just hours after the Home Office insisted there were no staffing issues and people were moving through in ‘good time’.
Rishi Sunak’s Treasury and Grant Shapps’ Department for Transport are pushing against new travel measures over the ‘severe’ impact they would have on aviation and the wider economy.
But Priti Patel and Matt Hancock are eager to enforce harsher rules to stop mutant strains from entering the country, potentially undermining the vaccine operation.
Amid growing doubts over the summer holiday season, the Cabinet’s Covid operations committee will thrash out how to tighten border controls. Passengers are pictured queuing at Heathrow Airport on Thursday
Huge queues prompted anger from passengers and questions over the number of staff at work
One senior source told
World Health Organisation Health systems development consultant Alvaro Garbayo was so infuriated with the chaos at Heathrow on Thursday he attempted to contact Matt Hancock on Twitter to complain.
He asked him: ‘Border control at Heathrow a complete mess, a crowd queuing for more than one hour with not enough space to keep safe distance. Just making sure we all get infected before entering UK? Proactively pushing for herd immunity?
‘And just to make it more likely they hand over water for free so people remove their masks. No special arrangements for people with children, people with disabilities, elders… and we get surprised with our numbers?’
The self-service e-gates at Heathrow Airport are currently closed – with border guards having to check all paperwork and passports manually.
A Home Office spokeswoman said on Wednesday: ‘Border Force has the necessary staff needed to fulfil its vital function of keeping the border secure and protecting the public.
People who have travelled from multiple destinations queue in a system difficult to space
‘Even with the increased Border Force spot checks on arrival, with passengers liable for a fine of £500 for failing to comply with the new rules, the vast majority of people have been moving through the UK border in good time.’
The Home Secretary said last night it was ‘far too early to speculate’ about whether foreign holidays would be possible this summer.
In a further sign of the disruption ahead, it emerged that EU leaders are discussing plans to close the borders to British travellers to slow the spread of the new Covid variant first identified in Kent.
Miss Patel, Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove are pushing for arrivals in the UK to be required to stay at ‘isolation centres’ to complete their ten-day quarantine.
Luggage piled up as the enormous backlog saw passengers unable to get through to collect
In practice, this is likely to mean hotels, although it could include isolation at state-run premises as happened with travellers from Wuhan in the early days of the pandemic last year.
However, one Government source said a final decision on the move had not been taken and might not be finalised until next week.
Leaked documents revealed last night that the Home Office even considered requiring travellers to wear electronic tags on arrival in the UK, like criminals released early from jail do.
The idea was rejected because of concerns about legal challenges and the potential strain on the monitoring system.
The move to tighten the borders comes amid fears that new strains of the virus emerging abroad could undermine the effectiveness of the vaccination programme.
The government decided that a negative COVID test was required within 72 hours of travel
Home Secretary Priti Patel said last night it was ‘far too early to speculate’ about whether foreign holidays would be possible this summer
The scenes come as it was predicted the government would introduce quarantine hotels
One Whitehall source said Mr Hancock was ‘paranoid’ about the threat from abroad, adding: ‘We are rolling out the vaccine now much faster than many other places. That is the key to unlocking in the UK.’
Mr Hancock told MPs the Government would be ‘very cautious on travel’ for now to stop the arrival of Covid variants against which vaccinces might not be so effective.
Miss Patel, who is pushing for tougher border restrictions, said the Government has already moved to close all travel corridors and banned all travel from South America following the emergence of a new strain in Brazil.
She confirmed that further restrictions are being kept under review.
Ministers hope using hotels for isolation, as in Australia, will improve compliance with quarantine rules but have ruled out banning all inbound travel by foreign nationals.
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