Heathrow airport has reopened one of its dormant terminals specifically for arrivals from “red list” countries. The west London airport is currently the main arrival point for travellers to the UK.
What has changed for passengers, and how does the system work? These are the key questions and answers.
A reminder of the red list?
Since February the government has had a “red list” of countries regarded as high risk because of the prevalence of coronavirus “variants of concern”.
Only people with the right of residence in the UK can travel from them, and anyone arriving from a red list location is obliged to go into 11 nights in hotel quarantine at considerable expense.
Founder members of the red list included South Africa, South America and Portugal. The cohort has since expanded relentlessly to cover 43 countries – now including Turkey, India, and the UAE. A few have escaped, with Portugal actually becoming one of the very rare “green list” nations.
The background to the airport move?
With passenger numbers a small fraction of normal levels, Heathrow has been using only half of its four terminals.
Terminals 3 and 4 have been mothballed: keeping a security presence, catering and other operations there was simply uneconomic with so few passengers.
At the same time, some passengers have been obliged to queue for up to six hours at Heathrow with those from red list nations mingling with lower risk travellers.
On Sunday, for example, a British Airways arrival from Bengaluru in red-list India arrived at Terminal 5 just before flights from Los Angeles (rated amber) and Porto and Faro in Portugal (rated green).
The government has been increasingly concerned by the risk of infection, and asked Heathrow to take action – even though airport executives insisted the long waits were down to poor resourcing by UK Border Force.
Starting on 1 June, direct arrivals from red list locations will be separated from other passengers.
A Heathrow spokesperson said: “While opening this facility will be very challenging logistically, our hope is that it will enable Border Force to carry out its duties more efficiently as passenger volumes increase in line with the green list.”
Aren’t flights from red list countries supposed to be banned?
That was the initial claim from ministers. In fact many flights kept operating to bring in passengers and take out departing passengers.
The only significant restriction prevented people buying seats on flights that were operating anyway. This had the unintended consequences of forcing people arriving from the UAE to travel via third countries – multiplying interactions and therefore risk, and making it much more difficult for them to be identified on arrival.
After representations from The Independent about the increased risks, the Department for Transport (DfT) changed its policy and now allows passengers to travel direct.
What will the passenger experience be like?
After a plane from India, the UAE or South Africa touches down, it could taxi to Terminal 3 to offload passengers direct. Or it may go to its “normal” terminal – either 2 or 5 – with passengers bussed to Terminal 3 without coming into contact with other travellers.
UK Border Force officials will process passengers and they will be taken by bus direct to their quarantine hotels.
Anyone departing to red list countries will continue to use Terminal 2 or 5; Terminal 3 is strictly for arrivals only, and any planes that park there will be towed to their normal departure terminal to pick up departing passengers.
So does that solve the problem of red list arrivals mingling with others?
Far from it. From the vast majority of red list countries, the only way to reach the UK is with a change of planes. And even from places such as Dubai and Mumbai with direct arrivals, cheaper deals are available through other hubs – with passengers arriving at other terminals or UK airports.
For example, the last time I travelled from Dubai to Heathrow I flew via Paris, and from Mumbai via Bahrain. If I did the same today, I would turn up at Terminal 2 and queue with arrivals from amber and green list nations.
How long will the red list terminal last?
A Heathrow spokesperson said: “Red list routes will likely be a feature of UK travel for the foreseeable future as countries vaccinate their populations at different rates.”
But the airport plans to move red list arrivals to Terminal 4 “as soon as operationally possible”. If passenger numbers start to increase significantly, Heathrow hopes to bring Terminal 3 back into normal service.