People arriving from India spent hours in tightly packed Heathrow queues, says passenger

Is this an action replay of 15 months ago? – Owl

A woman who arrived in the UK from “red-list” India last week has claimed passengers from her flight queued for hours next to travellers from other flights despite concern over mutant Covid-19 variants.

By Hugo Daniel

Maggie Sisson, 50, flew in from Bengaluru in India, last Friday. She told i it took her four and half hours to get to her quarantine hotel after landing – even though she was staying in Terminal 5’s Sofitel hotel and that social distancing was non-existent.

“Red-list” passengers were directed to queue for immigration on the far right side of the arrivals hall – but some non-red list passengers were also queueing as close as “five metres” away, Ms Sisson claims.

“It was the most crowded space I’ve been in since the pandemic began. It [arrivals] is all in one area, but there was hundreds of us.” she told i.

The expatriate, who has lived in India for 15 years and who had returned to the UK to visit family, waited for more than two hours in an immigration line and the rest of the time waiting for a bus to her hotel also in the terminal with other non “red-list” passengers.

She said: “It was pure madness at Heathrow. If I do test positive I have no doubt the exposure would have been there.

“I ended up being hours in a small space with people, yes they had masks on, but with so many other people for a long amount of time, that to me defeats the whole purpose of quarantining.

“My concern was not only for us in the ‘red list’ immigration queue but the fact that this queue is in the same area as all arrivals for immigration.

“People are arriving from red list countries and you’re making an effort to do a separate channel, why would you extend the amount of time and therefore the amount of exposure to other people? It’s just insanity, it defeats the whole purpose.”

After showing passports, passenger locator forms and hotel details, the “red-list” passengers were put into groups of 15 and escorted downstairs to collect their baggage – but this was also in the same area as other passengers, Ms Sisson claims.

Concerned about the waiting times, she posted in the Facebook support group for people entering hotel quarantine, which currently has more than 5,000 members, and several people shared similar experiences.

One wrote: “It took me and my mum about seven hours in the end. We were in queues in Heathrow for about 5.5 hours, but then it took another 1.5 hours getting on the coach and waiting to leave”. Another traveller said they queued for six hours and added simply: “Was awful”

Ms Sisson, originally from London, said: “For the first 45 minutes the queue didn’t move I can’t say we were socially distanced. The babies screamed, small kids ran around without masks.

“They came round with water because everyone was hot and bothered, so people removed there masks to drink. I didn’t drink mine, there was no way I was going to take off my mask. I had been so careful in India and on my travels.”

Ms Sisson, a physiotherapist, said the bus queue to hotel line was also “within five metres” of other passengers collecting baggage and exiting customs and she claims she queued for 90 minutes.

She said: “They herded us into a corner. Anyone exiting the airport has to go out of that customs exit which is directly opposite where we were held, it cannot be a good idea.”

Her experience at Sofitel has been good and on day two her coronavirus test came back negative.

However on May 11, day four of quarantine, she was notified notification by NHS Test and Trace that she had been in contact with someone who tested positive. She told staff about her airport experience and claims the person she spoke to was “horrified”.

She said: “They were very nice but absolutely couldn’t believe it. They said that’s insane, how can we not know about this, it just defeats the point of everything’.”

Ms Sissons said she thought the authorities should be expediting the “red list” passengers through.

She said: “You’d have thought you wouldn’t want us held anywhere, you’d want us off that plane ticking us off as quickly as possible, putting us on a bus straight away and off to a hotel.

“What horrifies me is the UK is meant to be opening to more flights from Monday and I don’t see how they can cope with it, you can’t have more people and that system going on. Surely, you’re going to have travellers coming in not needing quarantine, in a space where there’s kids that are maskless, may be asymptomatic, bringing these variants? For me it’s insanity.”

A spokesperson for Heathrow airport said: “In order to ensure passengers are not left to queue for unacceptable lengths of times on arrival, the Government must deliver on the automation of the Passenger Locator Form to allow e-gates to reopen and Border Force must man every desk to prevent bottlenecks from forming at the border.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Protecting public health is our priority and as we reopen international travel safely we will maintain 100 per cent health checks at the border to protect the wider public and our vaccine rollout. 

“While we do this, wait times are likely to be longer and we will do all we can to smooth the process, including the rollout of our e-Gate upgrade programme during the summer and deploying additional Border Force officers.

“Every airport, including Heathrow, has a responsibility to comply with social distancing and Covid measures on site.”