Covid fears grow after reports of crowding among arrivals at UK airports

By Nicola Davis

Concerns over arrivals to the UK are growing as reports have emerged of passengers being crowded on to shuttle trains at airports, a lack of information about quarantine, and confusion around test-and-trace forms.

Prof Susan Michie, the director of the Centre for Behaviour Change at University College London and a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behavioural Science, a government advisory group, told the Guardian that a family member who returned from Nice on Saturday evening was shocked at the conditions at Stansted airport. “You just wouldn’t know there was a pandemic,” Michie said.

On disembarking, passengers from up to five planes arriving from different countries were crowded on to shuttle trains. “There were massive great queues to get on the shuttle, so everyone was pressed in against each other trying to get to passport control,” said Michie.

She added that her relative received no information about the need to complete a passenger locator form. Such forms are supposed to be filled out online before arrival in the UK to help the authorities check that people are quarantining if necessary, and to support test and trace. Failure to provide details could result in a fine of up to £100.

On Friday the Guardian revealed that the UK Border Force was planning to spot-check only 30% of arrivals for passenger locator forms. Passengers can produce either a paper or digital copy.

“You can’t spot-check something that hasn’t happened because you haven’t been told to do it,” said Michie, adding that her relative found there was also no information given to passengers at the airport about quarantine or testing.

Carol Gardner, 61, from Kent, said she landed at Gatwick on Sunday having spent six weeks in Spain. While she had completed her form, she was not asked to show it. “No information at all about quarantine was given,” she said.

Another passenger, who recently returned to the UK from Limoges, France, told the Guardian she had been sent a link to the online passenger locator form by her airline, but no checks appeared to be taking place at Stansted.

The woman, in her 30s, who asked not to be named, said the only apparent notice about quarantine was a sign stating that France was now on the UK’s quarantine list, displayed at the gate as she boarded her flight back to the UK.

“It looked like a boring letter so I doubt people read it,” she said. What’s more, she added, the plane for the return flight did not appear to have been cleaned, with sweets littering the floor.

Travellers returning from countries on the UK’s quarantine list, which include France, Spain, Switzerland and the Czech Republic, must self-isolate for 14 days. Failure to do so could risk a fine of up to £1,000.

Andrew Brittle, 56, a project manager for a charity, has just completed his fortnight of quarantine after returning from Barcelona, Spain, but said nobody contacted him to ensure he was self-isolating.

“As we were going through passport control at Stansted, someone was chatting to the border officers asking: ‘What do I do with my form?’ and they said: ‘We don’t really know.’ No one seemed to have any idea of what to do.”

Brittle, from south London, said he passed through the airport in less than a minute as it was deserted, without facing any questions or being asked to submit the form.

While the UK Border Force has said only 10% of passengers checked had not completed their forms, the latest revelations add to growing concern over a lack of checks and information among arrivals.

Teresa Luckhurst, 64, a school secretary from East Sussex, said the vigilance of the Egyptian authorities at Sharm-el-Sheikh airport stood in stark contrast to her experience at Heathrow.

“When we registered online there was a QR code and we naturally thought people would scan it when we arrived but it was business as usual,” she said. “We have a friend who is returning to the UK from Egypt shortly and has told us he will just ignore the quarantine rules and return to work. He will be putting everyone in his office at risk. Why is this being allowed?”

Dr Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, said a key concern as winter approached was infection being brought in.

“The tests are not yet sensitive enough to correctly diagnose infections in the early stage, which limits the value of airport testing. Therefore, interventions such as quarantines, infection control on the aeroplanes, and testing after return will be crucial,” he said. “This will help to reduce community cases of Covid-19, particularly onward transmission into vulnerable groups who are more likely to be hospitalised or have high mortality rates.”

But Prof John Edmunds, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said there were bigger concerns than a few cases being imported from abroad, adding that most people quarantined would not have Covid-19. “We have 30,000 active infections in the community in England alone. That is the real problem,” he said.

A government spokesperson said: “Airlines and other carriers are required to provide a reminder to travellers at the point of purchase, check-in and during travel about the need to complete the contact form and, where necessary, adhere to self-isolation measures.

“The latest guidance can be found on gov.uk and passengers should make sure they are familiar with it before travelling. Both Border Force and Public Health England carry out random spot-checks to ensure that people understand the requirements and are abiding by them.”