Border Force staff are being redeployed from airports to the English Channel as ministers scramble to try and contain record-breaking numbers of migrants reaching Britain’s shores this summer, it has emerged.
Staff from major airports have been relocated to Dover as the agency tries to process the hundreds of migrants arriving every day, amid fears that the number of small boat crossings could surge in the coming weeks.
However, sources have warned that the move threatens to leave airports overstretched, leading to longer queues during the busiest period of the year, when tens of thousands of families are heading overseas for their summer holidays.
Aviation chiefs are worried about any understaffing of Border Force desks as the summer progresses and increasing numbers of travellers return to the UK. “This is the thing we are dreading the most,” said a senior aviation source.
On Saturday, travel experts also hit out at the decision to redeploy staff from airports, warning it risked harming the recovery of the aviation sector, which has been among the hardest hit by the pandemic.
Record numbers arriving
It comes at the end of a week when the number of migrants reaching UK shores so far this year surpassed the record 8,417 for the whole of 2020. More than 1,000 crossed in five days, starting with a record daily total of 430 on Monday.
It has been reported that as many as 22,000 migrants could cross the Channel by the end of the year, with Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, hauling in Dan O’Mahoney, the clandestine threat commander, to warn that the numbers must be driven down.
Speaking to The Telegraph, Lucy Moreton, professional officer of the Border Force union ISU, said staff from Heathrow, Gatwick, Southampton, Portsmouth and Newhaven were now being deployed to Tug Haven in Dover, where the Channel migrants are being processed.
How Channel migrant people smuggling operations are financed
She warned this would have a knock-on effect which could lead to longer queues at major airports like Heathrow at peak times for returning holidaymakers. Last Monday, there were waits of up to two and a half hours for passengers arriving at the airport.
Her concerns were echoed by Paul Charles, chief executive of travel consultancy The PC Agency, said: “Border Force need to ensure that it has got enough staff at key airports, especially Heathrow, which are now starting to see some signs of a recovery over the summer.
“There is an onus on the Home Office to ensure they have got enough staff to process passengers to get them through.
“They need to keep our borders free flowing and enable those entering the UK to flow through as quickly as possible. Otherwise it is going to knock consumer confidence to travel if they see long queues, as well as leading to greater mixing in airport arrivals, which is the last thing anybody wants.”
Ms Moreton said the problem was now being “mitigated” by the Government’s decision to transfer responsibility for Covid checks on arrivals to airlines at departure gates before passengers left for the UK.
Pinging and testing
This had eased the pressure on Border Force staff at Heathrow and other airports but the deployment of staff to Dover had also increased the risk of officers being pinged.
“When you deploy staff in this way, it increases the chances of being pinged. That also has an impact on officers being available,” she said.
In a bid to reduce the numbers being forced to self-isolate, ministers on Friday announced that frontline Border Force staff would now be able to take part in daily contact testing, enabling them to stay in work providing they continue to receive negative lateral flow test results.
Job cuts in aerospace industry
The Home Office is also working to upgrade airport eGates to meet the new biosecurity check requirements, while the Border Force has also been given enhanced capabilities to conduct automated checks at their desks on passengers who have valid passenger locator forms, helping to reduce queue times.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We have seen an unacceptable rise in the number of people making life-threatening journeys at the hands of people smuggling gangs. We take the welfare of those in our care seriously and have improved our facilities in response to the unprecedented rise in small boats crossings.
“We regularly review staffing requirements to ensure resources are deployed flexibly as and when required to carry out the vital function of border security and we have recently increased our workforce through two rounds of recruitment.”