With less than 100 days before the Olympics it is worrying to hear concerns around the security and passenger traffic delays at the UK’s border with thunderous rumbles from passengers, former senior officials and the media. It had been widely suggested that the Easter holiday surge would have provided an excellent opportunity to test new border measures ahead of the Olympics. However delays at immigration desks in the UK were significantly worse over this period, as reported in the media, and the problem is only likely to increase as we approach this summer’s Games, unless something drastic is done.
It seems like an opportunity lost that the Border Agency didn’t look at the Easter holidays as an opportunity to showcase its preparedness for the Olympics, given the natural surge in outgoings and incomings to the UK borders. Instead, the impression given is that a plan for expanding both departure and arrival procedures simply isn’t in place. Unless BAA and the Border Agency are able to pull a rabbit out of the hat in the coming months, then we’re looking at a serious problem at our airport and seaport terminals during the summer. And if they pull such a rabbit now it clearly will be a panic measure. UKBA preparedness has to be judged, at this late stage, by what is evident now.
With 11 million tickets available for the Olympic Games, the influx of international attendees, athletes, visitors and media will be a significant proportion of this number. There are a number of scenarios which UKBA could play with at this late stage to mitigate this disastrous situation: firstly, if the number of border staff reductions continues at its current rate, and the full scrutiny procedures remain the same, the worst case is that a situation could evolve quickly whereby planes are forced to turn away from our major airports because other planes are stuck at airbridges, not unloaded, because the arrivals immigration hall is packed. Alternatively, if border procedures are relaxed and Brodie Clark’s plan for intelligence led screening is fully followed by a committed and coherently led UKBA, then some sort of order might be imposed. It didn’t happen before – hence the removal of Mr Clark – so the probability of it being imposed now is slim. The likelihood now is that stringent document scrutiny no longer takes place and we run the risk of letting through potentially dangerous and serious criminals.
But there is still time to improve the situation. The Home Office and Border Agency need to sort out their differences and put in place some sort of short term but dramatic measures at our borders ahead of The Games. In a recession, spending on our borders was likely to be lean but a combination of technology and increased personnel in the short term should be well worth the outgoing to keep our country safe when all eyes will be on us from around the globe. Can you imagine the media fallout if we get this wrong.
With Iris technology and e-Gates assisting in reducing the number of staff required to process incoming passengers, the obvious solution would be to start by increasing the amount of automatic scrutiny afforded by these technologies. Rent it, don’t buy it, and insist on the latest technology, whilst increasing staff to supervise the automation. They do not need to be UKBA since all they are doing is keeping an automatic process going. At this short notice the only answer is to enhance the integration of staff and technology. From our (Unisys) previous work around cargo traffic and delivery at the Beijing Olympics, we understand the importance of planning in advance for these types of events but when you only have less than 100 days to go, you need to do something drastic.
The UK is set to experience the biggest surge at our borders for the next ten years and we have next to no time left to prepare adequate processes for dealing with this influx of visitors to UK and the Olympics. Action is needed now to ensure the UK is protected so those travelling to London for The Games can enjoy their experience from the moment they arrive at any UK airport or sea port terminal. The Olympics should be a celebration of the achievements of the UK in preparing for such a global event. It won’t happen again in UK for decades or longer. Show the world that UK Borders are open to visitors not a barrier to tourism.