Airline passengers arriving at Heathrow Airport last week were subjected to terrible delays in immigration queues lasting two-and-a-half hours. It’s been reported that, to their frustration, some staff weren’t interested helping and passport control desks remained empty. Workers at the airport are said to have tried to stop people from taking photos of the chaos in an attempt to keep the problem quiet. However, many people snapped the conditions using the cameras on their mobile phones.
This issue comes in the run-up to the Olympic Games – which starts on July 27 – raising concerns about a ‘perfect storm’ during a time when the British capital is expecting an extra 650,000 arrivals for the Games at the peak of the summer season. Adding to the pressure, thousands of athletes will be arriving in the UK over the next three weeks, while hundreds of thousands of families plan to take foreign holidays.
The ISU, the Border Agency union formerly known as Immigration Service Union, represents 4,500 border staff. The union says that the current issues are being made worse due to only half of the current workers being fully trained to approve passengers’ entry to the country.
Despite the long immigration delays, Heathrow Airport seemed to be doing all it could to welcome athletes, with 1,000 volunteers filling the airport to help athletes in the coming weeks. A series of pink greeting desks staffed with five workers – airport staff and Games officials – have been positioned in four terminals. The desks will allow the athletes to get their Olympic village passes. However, when some passengers walked by them on Saturday evening, the workers stood idle while they waited for athletes to arrive. This was because the desks don’t deal with immigration. The athletes will have to go through the same procedures as every other arriving passenger.
BAA, the owner and operator of Heathrow Airport, has admitted that queues at immigration checks have been unacceptably long as of late. It says the Home Office promised all Border Force desks would be manned at the hub during the peak Games arrival times. However, it added that the Home Office should be providing a good travel experience to regular and Olympics visitors alike.
A source also said that staff levels will be higher during the Games due to contingency plans not starting for another two weeks. They admitted to minor breaches in queuing times at passport control, but claimed more workers were deployed. Immigration is the Home Office’s matter, and it says all Border Force desks will be open during peak travel periods from July 15, BAA added.
The Border Force has to get non-EU passport holders through immigration in less than 45 minutes 95% of the time under its targets. For EU passport holders, the target is less than 25 minutes 95% of the time. A spokesman said that they are prepared for the busy Games period and will implement well-rehearsed plans. This includes staffing all passport control desks at key ports when necessary, he added.
Shadow immigration minister Chris Bryant says Home Secretary Theresa May assured Parliament that full summer capacity would be in place already. She has had plenty of time to plan for the summer Games. Britain can’t afford the lax security checks run last summer or the long queues resulting from government cuts this spring, he added.
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