Increased pressure on UK Border Force as a result of COVID-19

22nd May 2020

UK Border Force has been struggling with an influx of migrants from France since the start of the COVID-19 enforced lockdown, as well as a continued arrival of passengers at UK airports even as lockdown in the UK began. This extra work comes amidst an increased difficulty in working conditions for border force staff due to social distancing amongst other factors. Border Force Officers are coming in contact with individuals that are at a high risk of being infected with the virus. Responsibility to keep COVID-19 protocols in place for both staff and immigrants has made working conditions harder and the role of border control more difficult to enforce, as they put themselves at risk of infection from the virus.

On Friday 8th May, according to the Home Office, eight boats were stopped with 145 people aboard, a record for a single day and followed by 82 on Saturday 9th.1 Border crossings have continued in record numbers since then with ‘The Telegraph’ suggesting that over 1,000 migrants had crossed the Channel to the UK in small boats since the lockdown began on March 23rd.2 Their research suggests that 1,453 people had made landfall on UK beaches in 2020 already, compared around 1,200 for the whole of 2019. This is alongside a partnership with French officials who have also detained numbers of migrants in France before they make it to UK waters. Reports suggest that French authorities have been undertaking extra patrols along beaches with drones and detection equipment, however, crossings seem to be made at night in dinghies heading for the Kent coast that are then stopped en-route and taken to Dover. Migrants are claiming to be mostly Iranian, Iraqi or of African origin. Many reasons are being given for the sudden increase in small boat crossings: a lack of ferry crossings, warm weather and calmer seas, gangs reducing their prices for crossings.

Home Secretary Priti Patel has publically acknowledged a recent spike in the number of migrant boats making the channel crossing from France. The rise in crossings is also thought to be due to the poor conditions in French refugee camps. Concerns have been raised about the spread of COVID-19 in make-shift detention camps in Northern France where social distancing is not possible. Over a month ago Calais aid groups had warned that COVID-19 was spreading quickly through the camps where sanitation, water and food supplies were not adequate.3 This is combined with an ongoing criminal element enabling the migrants to get from France to the UK. Organised crime has taken advantage of the demand for immigrants needing to get around lockdown protocols, more determined to get to the UK, alongside gangs using shipments of essential Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to smuggle in drugs.4 Border Force has put in extra work prioritising shipments of medical equipment to the NHS, fast-tracking the checks, and combatting organised crime to either steal or provide inadequate PPE.5

The Home Office has introduced a series of comprehensive protective measures in the UK for asylum seekers and refugees including enhanced screening, identification and monitoring of those at risk or showing symptoms of COVID-19, providing facilities to self-isolate, individualised care plans, a review of cleaning practices in detention centres, provision of anti-bacterial cleaning materials, social distancing in communal areas, and the introduction of guidance materials for detainees.6 However, implementation of these measures is not always possible or can be extremely slow to achieve. Face-to-face meetings with officials have been postponed and many detainees have been released in an attempt to ease the burden.7

The government had said they will prioritise all operational Border Force staff with the PPE available to them, amidst an argument with the Public and Commercial Services Union that there was a lack of PPE for Border Force staff at airports and maritime ports.8 However, Border Force staff have reported they have been given an order not to wear face masks at work, creating a sense of fear that they are choosing between their health or being disciplined.9 Only staff who have to deal directly with members of the public showing symptoms of COVID-19 or ‘clandestinely’ entering the country were given masks, which is something that the unions argue undermines basic welfare standards.

Small boats voyaging from France are a common problem dealt with by UK Border Force, albeit an expanded one. The Home Secretary Priti Patel has been in talks with her French counterpart to restrict the flow of migrants from France and sending them back to the detainment camps. However, questions have been asked of the government’s stance over border control at UK airports. Whereas many countries had imposed strict lockdowns, the UK was still receiving many flights from countries around Europe seriously affected by this pandemic. As a result, the UK has been described as “an outlier” by Professor Gabriel Scally, President of Epidemiology and Public Health at the Royal Society of Medicine, in comparison to the rest of the world’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.10

According to the Pew Research Centre in America, as of the 1st April, 91% of the world’s population were living in countries with restrictions on people arriving from abroad with roughly 39% living in countries with complete border closure.11 It has been widely reported that there has been no mainstream screening of hundreds of thousands of passengers coming through UK airports, albeit mostly British nationals being repatriated since the beginning of the outbreak. A large number of whom were from severely affected areas. Contrast this to Japan, where an existing entry ban will be extended to travellers from 73 countries including the UK.12 Tests are being carried out at Japanese airports with travellers having to sleep in makeshift beds while they await their results.13

In the wake of a lack of clear guidance from the government for UK airports, Heathrow is taking the initiative and is currently trialling large-scale temperature checks on passengers. This is unlikely to have much effect, given that people carrying the virus can be asymptomatic. The Chief Executive of Heathrow has been openly critical of the government’s slow response to getting the UK’s airports going again, amidst the ongoing confusion of different nations’ travel restrictions, stating: “It’s not clear the (UK) government understands the strategic role that aviation plays for the economy”. 14 UK airports have said that the government is still going ahead with a 14-day quarantine for air passengers against their advice and that it would severely affect their business interests and the ability to get the economy back on its feet.15 It is obvious the pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic is starting to tell on airports and their business interests. Their need to implement unproven testing methodology and go against government advice is telling of underlying financial issues facing a much-pressurised industry.

This news comes under growing pressure on the Home Office for failing to put border restriction measures in earlier at the start of this pandemic, showing they too are feeling the burden. Even though there is mounting evidence that the UK received many cases of COVID-19 imported into the country over March, when there was ample evidence to close airports down, the Home Office justified their slow response by stating they followed the scientific advice: ‘that border enforcement would not have had a significant impact on the spread of the virus’.16 However, the UK now has the second-highest death toll on record behind the US.17

UK Border Force, with others, are on the frontline of mitigating the spread of COVID-19. They stand at a critical point between the inhabitants of an island and the threats of the outside world. It is a varied and demanding job that includes counter-terrorism security, enforcing immigration controls, and managing the flow of travellers through our major international transport hubs.  It seems that they have had little clear direction on how to determine whether people entering the UK may be infected with COVID-19 and how this could, in turn, impact the UK population. Given the importance of tracing and restricting the mobility of the virus, this is becoming an increasingly difficult position to justify.

They also play an important role in keeping the economy flowing through the running of efficient haulage and freight logistics checks, whilst enduring pressures of time and security protocols. Immigration enforcement staff are constantly challenged mentally and emotionally through extensive processes, lengthy shift patterns or through trauma. People willing to get to the UK by any means often results in Border Force staff enduring the stresses of finding asylum seekers in extreme conditions on boats, within containers, or trucks. Budget cuts and spending restrictions have meant they now no longer work with the assistance of the Police making their workload and responsibilities even greater. The job already requires specific skills and training that seems to have been made much harder with the introduction of COVID-19 control measures. If the UK government does not keep the UK Border Force properly updated with current methodologies, they are unlikely to be able to effectively combat the spread of COVID-19 at the UK international transport hubs.