Scenes of big crowds at Heathrow airport are “incredibly worrying”, the shadow home secretary has said, as travellers complained of long queues at passport control for a second consecutive day.
Photographs posted online by travellers, including the former British ambassador Peter Westmacott, appeared to show queues of people at border control with no obvious social distancing.
Labour’s Nick Thomas-Symonds expressed serious concern over the scenes and said the government was lurching from one crisis to another.
“The Conservatives’ indecision and incompetence has left holes in our country’s defences,” he said. “They are incredibly worrying, with no social distancing and clearly risking transmission of yet more strains of this awful virus. Ministers need to get a grip to protect our country’s health.”
In a tweet on Friday, Westmacott suggested the long queues were a haven for the spread of Covid-19. “No ventilation. Long delays. Superspreading,” he said.
The Sky News journalist Adam Boulton also said on Saturday it was taking more than an hour to get through passport control as just three officials were on duty.
And ITV’s Richard Gaisford said: “The queue is unbelievably long, it just snakes and snakes and snakes through the building. It doesn’t seem to be the most Covid-secure way of treating passengers to keep them all inside in one place at one time.”
A spokesperson for Heathrow said immigration halls were controlled by Border Force officials – who are helping to implement new rules around negative Covid tests for passengers – and not by airports.
He added: “We’ve been clear since last May really that social distancing in an airport environment isn’t really possible.
“To put that in context, if you had one aircraft of let’s say 300 people, you’d need a queue about 1km long to socially distance just one aircraft, which is why last summer we mandated face coverings in the airport.”
Emma Moore, the chief operating officer at Border Force, said: “We are in a global health pandemic which is why every traveller is subject to enhanced monitoring at UK airports in line with the public health measures at the border.
“Every essential check from pre-departure testing, to the passenger locator form and the suspension of travel routes is to strengthen our borders and prevent the spread coronavirus into the UK.
“People should not be travelling unless necessary. Every airport across the UK has a responsibility to comply with social distancing and Covid compliant measures on site.”
The delays come after the government imposed restrictions on air travel following consistent criticism over inaction. Cabinet splits emerged this week when the home secretary, Priti Patel, claimed she had been in favour of closing UK borders in March.
All international arrivals, including UK nationals, must now present proof of a negative Covid-19 test from within 72 hours before their departure. Passengers who flout the rules risk a £500 fine. Outbound travel from the UK is only permitted for a small number of reasons.
A government spokesperson said: “We are in a national lockdown to protect the NHS and save lives. People should not be travelling unless absolutely necessary. You must have proof of a negative test and a completed passenger locator form before arriving. Border Force have been ramping up enforcement and those not complying could be fined £500.
“It’s ultimately up to individual airports to ensure social distancing on site.”