The union representing Border Force officers has branded the implementation of the new quarantine rules, which came into force on Monday, as “shambolic” and warned that its members had not had time to prepare to vet travellers arriving in the UK.
The government is also facing a threat of legal action by airlines in a bid to block the legislation, which requires almost everyone arriving in the country to self-isolate for 14 days.
The chief executive of Heathrow airport warned he would be forced to make a decision in the next “couple of weeks” that could see him cut a third of the 7,000 workforce unless the government reassessed the quarantine rules.
John Holland-Kaye told the City AM podcast, The City View, that those levels of cuts replicated by other employers at Heathrow could lead to a loss of 25,000 of the 76,000 jobs at the airport and have a “devastating impact on the local community”.
But ministers have insisted the new rules were a “necessary” move to protect the spread of coronavirus from abroad as part of strategy to bring the disease under control.
Lucy Moreton of the Immigration Services Union said the quarantine system was almost impossible to enforce as it relied on the goodwill of travellers to follow complex rules that border staff had been given little time to understand.
“The staff are really angry that this does appear to be very shambolic and they don’t want to be blamed for that,” she told the BBC’s Today programme.
She said the government had only released the “very dense” rules on Friday and warned that Border Force officers could not even check basic information, such as the address at which a new arrival planned to self-isolate.
“There is no provision to check the address, even where the address is true, there’s no provision to check you’re staying there,” she said. “It’s entirely on trust.”
She added the rules were even harder to enforce as more than 40 types of travellers were exempt.
Ministers said that under the measures, new arrivals in the UK would face spot checks by Border Force and a fine of up to £1,000 if they did not comply with requirements to self-isolate for two weeks after arrival.
Ms Moreton also questioned the logic of allowing people to use public transport to get to their place of quarantine. “There is a request that they might use private transport if they can but absolutely no requirement,” she said.
Her comments were backed by the head of one of the UK’s transport unions. Manuel Cortes, general secretary of the TSSA, said the policy was “bonkers” because it meant those heading into quarantine could “potentially spread the virus to hundreds on their journey” to self-isolate.
Downing Street said the measures seemed to be working well on the first day and that “the indications so far are that there has been a good level of compliance”.
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The new measures have been heavily criticised by senior executives in the travel and leisure sectors, who warned they would prove disastrous for tourism after months of lockdown.
British Airways, easyJet and Ryanair have threatened legal action against the measures and sent a pre-action letter to the government at the end of last week, claiming that ministers acted unlawfully by imposing the restrictions.
The airlines claimed the quarantine rules were “wholly unjustified and disproportionate” because they were more severe than those faced by people with Covid-19 in the UK, including the threat of criminal sanction.
They also argued that introducing the measures when most countries had lower rates of coronavirus transmission than the UK was likely to be of limited use.
Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour party, said he was not opposed to the quarantine policy but was concerned about the “inconsistency and slowness” in the government’s implementation.
“They do make it difficult for us to support them at the moment,” Sir Keir said. “Weeks ago other countries put quarantine in and we didn’t. Now other countries are lifting it and we are putting it in.”