Heathrow Airport has reopened its Terminal 4 building as a dedicated facility to process arrivals from countries on the UK’s coronavirus travel red list.
The airport said its “safety first approach” was a response to the potential risks posed by the new Omicron variant, which prompted the government to bolster travel rules on Monday.
It came after 10 southern African nations were added to the red list: Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Angola, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia.
The dedicated terminal to handle the flights deemed the highest risk will also be seen as alleviating criticism around massive summer border queues at Heathrow in the run-up to, what is tipped to be, another Christmas season gripped by restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19.
IT failures at immigration have also created backlogs of passengers.
The travel sector – among those worst hit by the pandemic to date – is furious at the prospect of passenger demand being affected again by added costs for travellers.
The rules currently state that anyone arriving from abroad is required to take a day 2 PCR test and self-isolate until they get a negative result.
Only British and Irish citizens will be allowed into the UK from the newly red-listed countries in southern Africa.
They will have to show a negative test taken within three days of departure.
They will then have to spend 10 days in a government-approved quarantine hotel, at a cost of more than £2,000, after landing.
T4 has been handling arrivals from red list countries since June but the building was closed again when the red list was eliminated at the start of last month – only to be re-established at the end of last week as nerves over Omicron grew.
It is understood the airport alone is funding T4’s operations.
Heathrow said on Wednesday its measures were designed to ensure confidence in flying.
“Heathrow has today reopened its dedicated facility for passengers arriving from red list countries”, its statement read.
“Terminal 4 will act as a separate arrivals facility, keeping direct red list arrivals away from passengers in all other operational terminals.
“This safety first approach delivers a more efficient journey for all passengers, alongside a multiple layered approach that will keep passengers and colleagues safe – including mandatory requirement of face coverings, intensive robotic cleaning regimes across the airport, enhanced ventilation in immigration halls and COVID marshals on hand.”
It said that passengers flying into Heathrow would be able to use PCR testing facilities either on, or close to, the airport.
It added that those choosing to test at the airport had to pre-book.
The airport’s chief operating officer, Emma Gilthorpe, said: “We are supportive of measures that protect public health and prevent the spread of COVID.
“The rapid introduction of restrictions for international travel will nonetheless be a further significant blow for British exporters and those wanting to visit friends and relatives.
“Keeping the changes under constant review and a government commitment to the removal of red list countries, as soon as it is safe to do so, will help.”