MIAMI – Nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, London Heathrow Airport (LHR) claims social distancing “isn’t really possible” in the airport.

The UK’s attitude to its borders has been questioned throughout the pandemic, and this is another hurdle it must now overcome. The UK has only recently introduced a requirement for passengers to possess a negative COVID test before entering the country.

Images emerging from LHR this morning have sparked concern from both travelers and airport officials. The shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds described the scenes at LHR as “incredibly worrying,” later claiming the government was “lurching from one crisis to another.”

This comes amidst the claims from the British government that the new UK strain of the virus is more deadly. However, a government spokesperson deflected blame by stating it is “ultimately up to individual airports to ensure social distancing on site”. LHR has subsequently passed the blame onto Border Force.

How we imagine LHR during COVID-19. London Heathrow Airport Terminal 5. Photo: Pascall Watson.

The Reality

Since Friday, images and videos of a lack of social distancing at passport control have emerged from Heathrow. Considering most international travel is now restricted, the details emerging on social media from Heathrow is very worrying. Former British ambassador Sir Peter Westmacott posted a photo of Terminal 2 on Friday with the caption: “T2 Heathrow Friday afternoon. No ventilation. Long delays. Super spreading.”

Photo: Peter Westmacott – @PeterWestmacott

Current restrictions only allow Britons to travel abroad for a limited number of “legally permitted reasons” during lockdown. These include essential journeys for work, medical treatment, legal purposes or urgent compassionate reasons. Most travel corridors into the UK have now been closed, requiring passengers to isolate for 10 days on their entry into the country.

Video: Richard Gaisford – @Richardgaisford

A Hard Lesson to Learn?

The only positive to be taken is every passenger should have tested negative for COVID-19 before they traveled. The UK’s Border Force insists that it is implementing new procedures to maintain social distancing and keep passengers safe. A spokesperson for Heathrow added “We’ve been clear since last May really that social distancing in an airport environment isn’t really possible.”

The UK has been reluctant to take advice from overseas regarding its borders. Lessons can definitely be taken from airports such as Seoul Incheon Airport (ICN), where passengers are briefed about special arrival procedures before disembarkation.

Featured image: Heathrow, Terminal 5A, check-in hall, COVID-19 signage, May 20, 2020. Photo: LHR