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A view from inside the Heathrow petri dish

Dense crowds in the customs hall at Heathrow - Credit: Geoff McDonald

Geoff McDonald recently flew into the UK from South Africa. What he found was chaos, and conditions that seemed ripe for super-spreading

Though I was born and raised in South Africa, Britain has been my home for more than 20 years. I have raised a family here, come to know the UK as a wonderful and welcoming country where, by and large, things work pretty well. But my God, how that view was challenged as I flew into Heathrow Airport last weekend.

I had been back to South Africa to see family and ended up staying longer than planned – five months – because of Covid, the restrictions it caused, and above all the fears of the South African variant.

I obeyed the rules religiously, worried about getting the virus, worried about taking it elsewhere if I did.

Of course, I was keeping tabs on things back in Britain, and after the catastrophe of the country having the highest death rate in Europe things had seemed to stabilise, and the vaccination programme was clearly working well.

So, after going through all the necessary testing in South Africa, I flew home and the prospect of ten days quarantine in a hotel. I left Cape Town on the eve of May 1 on Turkish Airlines, with a stopover in Istanbul, before arriving into London at half past nine on the morning of May 2, a quarter of an hour ahead of schedule.

So far, so competent. Both in South Africa and in Turkey the journey could not have been smoother. But for the masks and the social distancing, it was like pre-Covid travel. And then, Terminal 2, London Heathrow and the UK border…

‘Shambles’ does not even get close to describing the experience. Chaos. Levels of incompetence that we associate perhaps with the poorer countries of my native continent, not one of the world’s most famous airports in one of the world’s most advanced economies.

Leaving Cape Town and transiting in Istanbul, there had been a sense of calm efficiency. Signs for social distancing were clear, and the process well managed, the airport and border processes well staffed.

At Heathrow, I could scarcely believe the density of the queues as the customs hall filled with passengers, with no social distancing whatsoever, no mask enforcement and people crowding in on each other as the lines lengthened, customs officials woeful in managing the flow, and no obvious ventilation.

Heaven knows where everyone was coming from, but if ever there was going to be a risk of a “red list variant” entering the UK, the customs hall provided the perfect petri dish.

All around me were people coming in from other parts of the world, packed together, sardine-like, levels of exasperation rising with every hour, levels of contact growing unavoidably too.

Of course, most of those queuing, like me, would be heading for hotel quarantine. But by no means everyone in the hall. I spoke to others in the ‘red list’ queue who, due to the nature of their work, did not have to do so.

It had taken 15 calm, smooth, minutes to get from the plane to the customs hall. It took three hours to get through it. I counted 15 customs desks in the hall. At no time during the three hours of queueing were more than four in operation. The final hour was the most painful because by then just one was open.

When, finally, I was through customs, and thinking the worst was over, I was wrong. In the customs area, ‘red list’ travellers and those who did not need to hotel quarantine were kept apart. But from there to the baggage area, they was nothing to stop the two groups mingling. 

Another long queue greeted us in the baggage area. We were now, it would seem, into the quarantine hotel processing area. This being the age of the internet and digitalisation, it came as a shock to witness this process in action – clip boards, paper and pens, manual completion and duplicate checking of forms before we were directed to another queue, for a bus to my hotel.

There were two more hours of queueing to endure before the bus arrived. Again, all queuing on top of each other, no social distancing because the space was so crowded, the risk of spreading or catching the virus further enhanced. As I finally left the arrivals hall to board the bus I watched, jealously, as those who had been through the same customs and baggage halls, but who had not arrived from a red list country, headed off ‘free’. Yet how many, I wondered, would shortly be spreading something picked up in the customs or baggage hall petri dish?

The same lack of grip was apparent on the bus that took me to my hotel. Even with seats blocked off for social distancing, it was half empty, despite so many in the queue having been clamouring to get on. A quarter of the seats were reserved for security personnel, yet only two accompanied us to our hotel.

In seeing this I felt for those who are still waiting in the baggage hall who could have joined us on the bus. But no, they remained stranded in a high-risk environment a little longer, waiting for the call to take them in another half empty coach to their hotel quarantine.

Another short queue awaited me at the hotel, I checked in, and finally, six and a half hours after landing on UK soil, I opened the door to my room, my home for the next 10 days. I flopped onto my bed, exhausted, missing my family, but also wondering how much worse this experience would be if I was depressed or anxious, or in a land I didn’t know, or flying in because I had urgent work or family business to attend to.

To pass the time, I tried to calculate how many people, and from how many countries, I had been close to in the hours since landing. Too many. I had felt so Covid secure in my bubble in South Africa, as I would have done had I been at home in Surrey. I had never felt less safe from the threat of Covid than during these past few hours.

As those queues shuffled along, all around me, so many people from all parts of the world, including the poorest, had been standing looking at each other, shaking their heads… is this really Britain? The Global Britain we keep hearing about from the mouths of Boris Johnson, and Priti Patel, who as home secretary is the minister responsible for this system?

If this is what they meant by taking back control of our borders, heaven help us. World-beating it most certainly is not… unless there is a competition to find the most chaotic border entry of the Covid age.

There were grumblings among passengers that the delays and close-quarters queuing are being tacitly allowed, to send out a message that international travel should not be undertaken. But if that is a factor, it seems reckless.

As for what will happen there when ‘normal’ travel resumes, and the numbers grow, I dread to think.

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