Immigration staff have been drafted in from Manchester to Heathrow in an emergency attempt to avert a repeat of last week’s meltdown at the London airport’s passport control which saw passengers facing delays of up to two hours.
The Home Office insisted resources were simply being used flexibly as and when they were needed.
Lucy Moreton of the Immigration Service Union said: “A number of staff at Manchester turned up to work today and were herded on to a plane and flown to Heathrow. They got four hours’ work out of them.”
The head of the UK Border Force, Brian Moore, responded: “We will not compromise border security but we always aim to keep disruption to a minimum by using our staff flexibly to meet demand.
“The vast majority of passengers pass through immigration control quickly. Queues are caused by a number of factors, including incorrect flight manifests or early or late planes which result in bunching.
“The important factor is to have staff that are flexibly deployed in the right numbers at the right times and this is what we always try to do.”
The move came as London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, wrote to the home secretary, Theresa May, telling her that Heathrow airport’s passport queues were creating a “terrible impression” of Britain and needed an urgent solution.
The immigration minister, Damian Green, is to respond to an urgent Commons question on the Heathrow crisis on Monday afternoon.
Johnson, the Tory candidate in this week’s mayoral elections, told the Conservative home secretary that Britain’s main port of entry was “gaining such a poor reputation” that it was undermining London’s reputation as a “welcoming city”.
“It is not of course the first time that these concerns have been raised with government but the need to resolve the situation becomes even more critical in these tough economic times,” Johnson wrote. “I know you will be as concerned as me and I look forward to hearing what measures the Home Office and UK Border Agency plan to take in order to rectify the situation both for the [Olympic] Games and for usual passenger numbers.”
May is to meet representatives from the British Air Transport Association to discuss the problems at Heathrow in a sign of the government’s growing concern about the impact of the chaos on business and tourism.
No details were given of the meeting, but the prime minister’s official spokesman said it would be held shortly. “That [the meeting] is because we don’t want to see long queues at airports. We want to keep queues to a minimum, but we have to do that in a way that doesn’t compromise security,” he said.
The spokesman said the queues had been partly caused by bad weather – a possible reference to storms in mainland Europe last week. Planes cannot take off if there is a storm over the airport.
Leaked emails have revealed the UK Border Force tried to ban Heathrow airport authorities handing out leaflets to passengers apologising for the delays and advising them to complain to the Home Office. The force also tried to enforce a ban on passengers taking pictures of the queues.
The airport authorities hit back . “Ministers may take a dim view about British Airports Authority handing out leaflets telling them how to complain about delays to the UKBA but surely this is entirely in the spirit of putting the customer first – a cause otherwise championed by the government,” said Simon Buck of the British Air Transport Association. “We all want to see robust borders but the fact is this does not have to mean passengers being unnecessarily delayed waiting in immigration halls.”
He said airlines and airports wanted to find a smarter way of addressing the problems: “We do not want to accept that long delays are inevitable. It’s not in the interests of airline and airport operations and certainly not in the interests of the travelling public or the UK’s reputation as a good place to come and visit.”
The emails leaked to the Daily Telegraph show that Heathrow approached “breaking point” last week with passengers left so frustrated by delays that they resorted to slow handclapping staff in immigration halls and in one instance storming past officials without showing their documents. They were later checked before they left the airport.
UKBA “indicative” queueing times suggest that passengers from within the European economic area should wait no longer than 25 minutes and those from outside the EEA no longer than 45 minutes. But delays of up to two hours were being reported by individual passengers, with Twitter awash with complaints from people including Tony Blair’s former spokesman Alastair Campbell and the tennis player Jamie Murray, brother of Andy Murray.