First impressions count. The truism applies to countries as well as people. When entering a new country our first impression of it will be its border control. I remember fondly arriving in Paphos, Cyprus before and after they joined the European Union and the development was remarkable. It told a story of a country on the up. If immigration is done quickly in a clean building with polite staff, it goes without saying, our first experiences of a new country will be more positive.
So, if we care about making those who visit our country leave it with a case of anglophilia, then we must sort out our decrepit e-gates.
The passport e-gates at Heathrow Airports have now failed for the third time in as little as three months. These may be wonderful innovations when they work, but disaster is becoming the watchword. The e-gates in one terminal can process as many as five passengers every 45 seconds. This means they can cut queues. But when they do fail, we lack the procedures to cope.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that these systems are failing us. The Commons public accounts committee, when examining the system in March, found that the Home Office had “no proof that systems can cope with passenger volumes that existed prior to Covid”. Nothing has been done since to rectify the situation. Instead, the Home Office has proceeded with its new Border Crossing security system introducing it in June. Rather than resolving problems, it might have even exacerbated them.
Priti Patel’s Home Office has a maelstrom of problems. E-gates are the least of them. But we shouldn’t underestimate the impact of ushering in new visitors in with a seamless system of checks at the border.
One passenger, fresh off a plane from New York, painted the picture of the problem. They told The Times: “What is it about the UK? Nothing ever works. It took me three minutes to get into the US and they are notoriously slow. I’ve been here an hour”.
Demand at Heathrow in September was around a third of what we would normally expect in pre-pandemic times.
As the summer approaches and the vaccine is distributed more widely, we should expect tourist and business travel demands to return to what they were in normal times. Bringing in new talent, more capital, and more ideas has always underpinned London’s economy. Aviation is undergoing an existential reevaluation as it grapples with the climate crisis. But strong travel and transport links will always form a backbone of our capital’s strength.
One aviation analyst pointed out that every other major European hub is able to function normally – except for Heathrow. What we’ve accepted as normal doesn’t have to be.
Every second withered away in a queue at Heathrow is a moment not spent contributing to the economy and buoying up Boris Johnson’s ambition for a “Global Britain”.
During Liz Truss’ tenure as Trade Secretary, our global tariff rates were dropped dramatically, allowing the UK to soar up the league table as one of the best countries to trade with.
But if we can’t easily get the people we want to work with into the country, or if the hassle of Heathrow deters them from coming back, that will undermine those efforts.