Immigration officers have not yet received operational guidance on how the new system of mandatory quarantine hotels will work, little more than 48 hours before the scheme comes into effect.
Lucy Moreton of the Immigration Services Union told The Independent that staff were going off shift for the weekend unaware of whether they will be expected to take on new enforcement duties on Monday morning.
The chair of the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, Yvette Cooper, also warned that without clear guidance there was a danger of chaotic scenes at airports increasing the risk of spread of coronavirus variants.
“Chaotic long queues with no social distancing in place have the potential to be super-spreading events that will undermine the very measures being introduced,” she warned.
Mandatory 10-day hotel isolation for travellers from 33 Covid hotspot countries was announced by Boris Johnson on 27 January in response to the emergence of concerning variants of the disease in Brazil and South Africa.
But it was not until Tuesday this week that the first contracts with airport hotels were sealed, backed up by the threat of a 10-year sentence in jail for anyone caught lying in an attempt to avoid having to isolate.
Preparations were hampered by technical issues which crashed the internet portal on which travellers from red-list countries including Portugal and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Brazil and South Africa, are supposed to book their £1,750 “quarantine package”.
Ms Moreton said staff were concerned that they had no instructions yet on whether they will be expected to check every passenger’s passport and ticket to catch out those trying to dodge hotel quarantine, which would mean substantially longer queues in airports.
“It may be that we’re expected to simply take it on trust when people say they have a hotel arranged and Border Force staff won’t be expected to do anything, in which case those trying to beat the system will succeed,” she said.
“Or at the other end of the spectrum, we could be expected to check and confirm with every single arriving passenger, which is a significant amount of effort.
“We don’t know if people are going to be isolated on aircraft or placed in separate queues. By Monday morning we are not going to have detention powers, so what do we do if somebody runs off? I recognise the incredible difficulty of this for the Home Office, but the more notice you give staff, the better.”
Ms Moreton said that arrivals from red-list countries have soared at Heathrow and Gatwick over the past few days, with UK nationals apparently trying to get back to Britain ahead of the deadline for hotel quarantine. Already, many staff at Heathrow were self-isolating after coming into contact with infected people, she said.
And border officials are worried about an angry reaction from those told they must comply with the new rules.
“When passenger locator forms first came in, the rate of verbal abuse of staff absolutely sky-rocketed,” she said. “If you are trying to avoid quarantine, you’re going to be very angry with the person catching you doing that.
“Even if it doesn’t come to physical assault, staff are very concerned about verbal abuse, being spat at or even coughed on.
“Staff are also concerned that they will have much longer interaction time with passengers, placing them at risk.”
Ms Cooper said that the failure to provide guidance to frontline staff was “not good enough” and demanded to know when it would be issued.
“It has been two and a half weeks since the prime minister announced the hotel quarantine policy in parliament and it had been briefed for weeks before that, and yet Border Force have had no time to plan,” she said.
“Why haven’t the basic details been sorted? Home Office ministers need to get a grip of this very quickly.”
She warned: “The Immigration Services Union has told me that a large number of Border Force staff are self-isolating at the same time as more people are rushing home from high-risk countries in advance of hotel quarantine rules.
“But this is going to get worse from Monday if Border Force officers don’t yet know if they will be asked to check for high-risk arrivals, if those passengers will be taken straight from the gate to hotels or whether they will join the queue with everyone else.
“We can’t afford chaotic arrangements like this as it makes it easier for new variants to spread.”
Ms Cooper called on the Home Office to make clear urgently what arrangements are being made to ensure that arrivals from red-list countries do not queue in airports alongside others who are free to go straight onto public transport to travel home.
The Independent has contacted the Home Office for comment.