Separate fast-track passport lanes for people from “old Commonwealth” countries, such as Australia and Canada, are to be introduced at Heathrow after the Olympics, the immigration minister has disclosed.
Damian Green has told MPs a short pilot scheme has been carried out using separate passport desks for those from five “low-risk countries” from outside Europe who do not need a visa to enter Britain.
Tourists and visitors from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the US and Japan are to be given the chance of avoiding the lengthy queues at Heathrow faced by passengers with passports from other non-European countries.
Green said there had been mixed results from the pilot scheme as in some cases it had taken up just as much time “because it involved moving people around the different queues”.
But the minister said the fast-track lanes would be introduced after the Olympics to give “a group of people a better experience at Heathrow”. He agreed it might lead to reciprocal arrangements for British visitors to the US and other countries involved.
The immigration minister said the government’s Olympics pledge to have every passport control desk staffed at peak times at every airport in south-east England will be put into effect from this Sunday.
Green acknowledged that the passport control queues facing passengers landing at Heathrow and other major airports had “not been perfect” in the last few months but insisted the situation was rapidly improving. He reported the maximum queue during the morning peak at Heathrow was only 28 minutes when he visited the airport’s Terminal 4 on Tuesday.
But the minister also had to confirm that Brian Moore, the interim head of the UK Border Force, which was set up in the wake of the Brodie Clark affair, had not applied to take on the role permanently. Moore gave up his job as Wiltshire chief constable following Clark’s resignation after a row over the relaxation of passport checks. Moore had been expected to apply for the job when his temporary appointment comes to an end in September. Interviews for his replacement are due to be held in August.
Keith Vaz, the chairman of the Commons home affairs committee, who made a snap visit to Heathrow on Monday, said he had been appalled to discover queues of more than an hour, only half the desks staffed and people stuck in corridors waiting to get into the arrivals hall “at the busiest international airport in the world”.
The airport operator, BAA, said on Monday the queues at Heathrow over the last few days had been “unacceptably long”.
The immigration minister challenged Vaz’s claims, insisting that the desk during the Monday morning peak had been 80%-staffed and the maximum waiting time had been 54 minutes for non-EU passengers.