A woman was forced to feed her baby on the floor at Heathrow Airport as Brits returning home were caught in seven-hour queues, a traveller claims.
Those standing in line to come into the UK, including the elderly and families with young children, had nowhere to sit and were given water every two hours in conditions branded “Hell on Earth”.
Some claimed they were forced to stand next to passengers returning from red list countries and bound for quarantine hotels, with little in the way of social distancing.
A union for Border Force workers claims a Covid-19 ‘bubble’ system aimed at preventing the spread of the virus led to inadequate staffing at peak times.
Border Force blamed passengers for the delays, while Heathrow Airport blamed Border Force as it called the queues “unacceptable”.
Alice, 26, waited from 6.30pm on Sunday to 1.30am on Monday to pass through border control with hundreds of other travellers at Britain’s busiest airport.
The Brit, who flew back from Vienna after a medical appointment, told the BBC: “I felt really unsafe. It was really disorganised.
“One mother had to feed her baby on the floor. It’s not humane.
“The staff didn’t offer any chairs, there was no social distancing. Only about three or four people were checking documents.”
Several passengers claim they spent five to seven hours at border control with only a few border force officials processing their paperwork.
One angry flier wrote on social media: “This is how you spread the virus.”
Camilla Tetley, 26, who flew back from Dusseldorf after spending Christmas with her parents, stood for six-and-a-half hours in a queue that “never seemed to end”.
Travellers were given water at two hour intervals, there were a lot of empty booths at border control, and staff were not enforcing social distancing rules, she told the BBC.
Aura Radu, 24, who arrived from Romania and waited six hours to pass through border control, told MailOnline: “It was like hell on earth. Hundreds of us were made to wait for more than six hours and when we asked security staff what was going on, they just shrugged their shoulders. It was horrendous.
“We had no food, and it became very hot and a lot of passengers like me almost fainted. We pleaded with officials to give us some water, which they eventually did.
“There were passengers from red list countries and others who were not, all mixing together. It was complete chaos, an utter shambles.”
Border Force has failed to meet its targets for processing passengers during the pandemic even as passenger numbers have dropped to record lows.
The ISU union for Borders and Immigration claims Sunday’s queues were caused by coronavirus restrictions imposed by Border Force.
The union said workers have been organised into bubbles of 10 in a bid to prevent the virus from spreading.
This means more staff cannot be deployed when there is a rush of travellers at border control, the union claims.
The ISU said staff have been verbally abused by passengers who were caught up in long queues, and they aren’t happy about the bubble measure.
It claims the measure causes long queues and doesn’t stop infection because staff interact with other workers in other areas at Heathrow.
But the Home Office said the union’s claims are “disingenuous” and the ISU had previous acknowledged that bubbles can help with health and safety during the pandemic.
The union denies saying the measure has any benefits.
Border control staff have been told not to wear masks while processing passengers, but they do sit behind a screen.
However, the ISU said staff are worried because some interactions can last as long as 20 minutes and involve passing documents between passengers and Border Force.
The PCS Union, which has 13,000 members in the Home Office, said it has voted for strike action over the fixed roster and Covid bubble system.
A Heathrow spokesperson said: “When additional measures were implemented at the border, we were clear with the Government that they must support the Border Force to ensure appropriate numbers of officials are on duty to minimise queuing in the Immigration Hall.
“It is deeply regrettable that Border Force has been unable to provide adequate resourcing, despite our many attempts to highlight the implications of not doing so.
“Leaving arriving passengers to queue for hours is unreasonable and no airport has the space to hold arriving passengers in socially distanced queues for over four hours, as has been the case in recent weeks.
“While our teams are on hand to support Border Force, it is their and the Government’s responsibility to ensure that their processes are properly managed and efficiently carried out without impacting passenger welfare.”
Nick Jariwalla, director of Border Force at Heathrow said: “We are in a global health pandemic – it is illegal to go on holiday and people should only be travelling for very limited reasons.
“Unfortunately a large number of arrivals failed to purchase their mandatory testing packages for the second and eighth days of quarantine in the UK.
“This caused delays as they were made to purchase them after being checked by Border Force – we make absolutely no apologies for this.
“Every essential check stops the spread of coronavirus in the UK – these people should not have been allowed to travel without their testing packages and we are following up with regulators and carriers to ensure the law is enforced.”