Almost 24million people arrived in the UK from abroad in the first three months of this year when there were no checks for coronavirus, damning new figures show today.
Some 23.7million ‘passenger arrivals’, including foreign visitors and Britons returning home, were clocked at UK sea and airports between January and March, the Home Office revealed.
The number – equivalent to a third of the entire UK population – were down almost a fifth (18 per cent) on the same period in 2019 and showed ‘with significant falls towards the end of the quarter’ when the scale of the pandemic became clear and the UK lockdown started.
But they cover a period in which coronavirus was spreading outwards from China into Europe – although a pandemic was only declared on March 11 – and no checks were made at airports, with arrivals simply advised to join the rest of the nation in self-isolating.
The Home Office visa numbers reveal that arrivals included almost 35,000 Chinese nationals and 133,000 people from India, which has also seen a large number of reported cases.
However, arrivals from EU nations with huge outbreaks were not counted because they are still arriving visa-free in the UK.
The figures were released as it was revealed thermal imaging cameras which can check the temperatures of airline passengers as they enter Britain are set to be rolled out at the country’s busiest airport today.
Heathrow will introduce the tripod mounted cameras in one of its immigration halls as part of a new trial as bosses look at ways to kick-start the travel industry in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
If successful, they hope the move will allow Britons to head abroad safely without going into quarantine on their return.
It comes as the airport’s chief executive John Holland-Kaye today showed tentative support for the government’s plan for an automatic 14 day quarantine for travellers entering the UK – but called for a ‘risk-based approach’.
From today, passengers arriving at the airport’s Terminal 2 will be automatically screened for raised temperatures, which could indicate a fever – one of the common symptoms of coronavirus.
New thermal imaging cameras (pictured) which can check the temperatures of airline passengers as they enter Britain are today set to be rolled out at Heathrow Airport
From today, passengers arriving at the airport’s Terminal 2 will be automatically screened for raised temperatures, which could indicate a fever – one of the common symptoms of coronavirus
Passengers will see the cameras as they pass through the immigration hall, with a sign telling them when they are entering an area being monitored
If successful, airport bosses hope the cameras will allow Britons to head abroad safely without going into quarantine on their return
They will see the cameras as they pass through the immigration hall, with a sign telling them when they are entering an area being monitored.
How do the thermal imaging cameras work and what will happen to passengers who show a high temperature?
The tripod-mounted thermal imaging cameras read the temperature of passengers as they walk past.
During the trial, they will be set up in the immigration hall of Heathrow’s Terminal 2.
The cameras can read temperatures at a distance of 8ft.
If a high temperature or suspected fever is detected, checking systems will produce a warning signal.
Heathrow bosses have previously stated that they are still in talks with Border Force, the Department for Transport and Public Health England on what action should be taken if a passenger with a fever is identified.
Options include asking that person to go into quarantine.
If the trial proves successful, Heathrow could roll out its temperature screening cameras in its departures, connections and staff search areas.
Passengers will not have to stop to have their temperature checked – instead, screening will take just seconds using infrared sensors as passengers move through the area.
Similar systems have already been trialled in Italy.
Regarding arrivals between January and March a Home Office spokesman said: ‘We’ve followed scientific advice throughout. Enhanced border monitoring was in place since the early stages for arrivals from China, Japan, Iran and Italy.
‘Once there was significant transmission here, the scientific advice was that border restrictions would have a very marginal impact as they contributed a tiny proportion of new infections.
‘Now that the virus is coming under control, it’s the right time to prepare new border measures.’
At this stage the trial is to determine only whether the technology works, meaning any passenger arriving with a high temperature would not be stopped.
Options for how to deal with passengers who show a high temperature reading are yet to be finalised, but are said to include asking that person to go into quarantine.
Heathrow chief executive Mr Holland-Kaye today said the cameras could become the ‘common international standard’ to get people flying again.
It comes as the airport boss today also signalled support for the Government’s plan to quarantine anyone arriving into the UK from abroad – an idea which the Downing Street appeared to dismiss last night.
However Mr Holland suggested ‘risk-based’ approach was needed to get people flying again.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘The Government’s got a tough job to do.
‘If they think that quarantine is the right thing to do I think we have to go with that, but it has to be time-limited and we have to plan for what comes next.
Thermal cameras monitors are used to check the body temperature of passengers at Fiumicino airport, near Rome, Italy on April 15
Passengers will not have to stop to have their temperature checked – instead, screening will take just seconds using infrared sensors as passengers move through the area
Options for how to deal with passengers who show a high temperature reading are yet to be finalised, but are said to include asking that person to go into quarantine
‘As the level of transmission comes down in this country and in other countries, we need to find a way that the vast, vast, vast majority of people who don’t have a disease can still fly.’
What is an air bridge?
An ‘air bridge’ is typically used by the military to reach and supply territory across enemy lines.
One of the largest in history was used for the Berlin airlift after the Second World War.
That kept the Western-held area supplied between June 1948 and May 1949 when it was cut off by Soviet forces.
Another famous air bridge was ‘The Hump’, which was the route over the Himalayas from India to resupply Chinese forces working with the Allies.
It comes as yesterday the government poured cold water over the possibility of introducing so-called ‘air bridges’ between countries with low levels of infection, to provide a fillip to the beleaguered tourism sector.
The prospect of quarantine-free travel between the UK and countries with low coronavirus rates had been raised by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps earlier this week.
But with ministers expected to unveil plans tomorrow for a tough new quarantine regime requiring travellers to self-isolate for 14 days after arriving in the UK, No 10 said the ‘air bridges’ idea would not form part of the proposals.
It would have seen the 14-day rule relaxed for certain countries – and Greece and France had both expressed an interest in the idea.
Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye today said the cameras could become the ‘common international standard’ to get people flying again
The prospect of quarantine-free travel between the UK and countries with low coronavirus rates had been raised by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps earlier this week
Earlier this week, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps raised hopes that some foreign holidays could be salvaged however the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said it was ‘an option under consideration but not agreed Government policy’
Blanket quarantine measures now appear likely to be introduced towards the end of the month, despite warnings they will wreck the holiday plans of Britons and damage the UK tourism industry.
UK tourism firms facing £37billion coronavirus hit, warns Visit Britain boss
UK tourism businesses could lose up to £15billion this year because of the coronavirus shutdown, an industry boss told MPs today.
Patricia Yates, acting chief executive at Visit Britain, said huge sums were likely to be lost both from international and domestic holidaymakers.
She told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee: ‘Every time we do the modelling the figures get worse. So for inbound, I mean we were looking at the beginning of this year at about £26.6 billion coming from inbound tourism, we reckon a £15 billion drop on that.
‘And for domestic, an industry that’s normally worth about £80 billion, a £22 billion drop on that.
‘And that’s actually before we’ve factored in the quarantine because we don’t clearly quite know what the measures are going to look like.’
She said while it would be the hope that domestic tourism this summer could pick up the slack and help alleviate some of the losses from the international sector, a ‘lack of confidence’ among people around travelling is a concern.
She said: ‘You’ve got a collapse of the supply industry as well as collapse of demand and really to get British tourism up and running this summer, and the summer is hugely important, you’re going to need that domestic audience. I think the worrying thing we see is the lack of confidence in the British public about travelling.’
She added: ‘So there’s a real job to be done there, given that it has to be the year of domestic tourism, there’s a real job to be done there in convincing people that it’s socially responsible to travel and enjoy a holiday. And that it’s safe to do so.’
Mr Shapps raised hopes that some foreign holidays could be salvaged on Monday when he told MPs he was investigating the possibility of allowing quarantine-free ‘air bridges’ to countries with low levels of infection.
But yesterday the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: ‘It’s an option under consideration but not agreed Government policy.’
A Whitehall source said: ‘The quarantine rules will be reviewed every three weeks but I think people would be unwise to book a foreign holiday in the expectation that an ‘air bridge’ will open up in time for the summer holidays.
‘It’s the sort of idea you might look at as you exit a quarantine system. But we are just getting started.’
Ministers are still finalising the details of the quarantine regime, but it is expected to include fines of at least £1,000 for those breaching the 14 days of self-isolation.
A minister involved in the talks said all arrivals would be stopped by Border Force agents and told to download the Government’s new coronavirus tracking app.
They will be asked to provide their address or details of where they are staying, and police or local authority officials will carry out spot checks to ensure the quarantine is not being breached.
Sources said there would be ‘very few’ exemptions.
Critics have questioned why the Government is tightening the rules at a time when some EU countries are easing travel restrictions and when many airlines have resumed UK flights.
Greek tourism minister Haris Theoharis had called on the Government to agree a no-quarantine pact with his country.
He told the BBC: ‘We feel that this is a time for us to start lifting restrictions and we urge other countries, the UK included, that as soon as we do that we would welcome reciprocity.’
The Greek islands, visited by three million Britons a year, have been in lockdown since March but hotels are due to open there on July 1.
With the Mediterranean nation’s under-pressure economy heavily dependent on holidaymakers it has been making plans to refill deserted beaches and hotels in popular tourist areas like Corfu (pictured)
Beachgoers enjoy the sun at a public beach in Piraeus near Athens, Greece, on May 18, after weeks of lockdown in the country
The country has escaped the worst of the pandemic, with just 165 deaths, and is desperate to welcome tourists back.
Ministers consider quarantine to be a vital part of efforts to prevent a second wave of coronavirus.
But airline bosses fear it will devastate the crippled travel industry. British Airways wanted to restore large-scale operations in July, but this now looks unlikely.
Virgin Atlantic have also indicated that flights will be pushed back to August ‘at the earliest’.
There are also concerns for the 20,000 British nationals still stranded abroad.
It is likely many will have to go into quarantine after returning as the rule could come into force as early as May 28.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has previously warned foreign summer holidays were unlikely this year, while Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said on Wednesday that domestic holidays could be possible by the beginning of July, if the rate of coronavirus infection was kept down.