Tony Smith CBE is a former Head of the UK Border Force and Director of Ports and Borders in both the UK and Canada. He is now Managing Director of Fortinus Global Ltd, an international border security company, and Chairman on the International Border Management and Technologies Association.

A day rarely goes by without me receiving a call from UK broadcast media asking me for my thoughts on Covid and the UK Border. Why didn’t we close the border last year? Why are we doing it now? How will the Border Force manage it? Can hotel quarantine stop new strains getting in? Do we need vaccination certificates to travel? What about our summer holidays?

The three primary functions of border control are the protection of national security, public policy, and public health.

On security, we conduct thorough multi-agency checks on everybody entering the UK both at point of booking and at point of entry. We are rather good at that.

On policy, the ending of free movement has given us a new Border Operating Model, a new points-based immigration system, and a new UK Border 2025 Strategy – all published in the course of the past year. It will take us time to implement the new systems and processes at the border. We aren’t so good at that yet – but we will get there.

But bottom of our report card is the protection of our national health. On that, we must try harder.

Once upon a time, we had a Port Medical Inspector (PMI) in every port of entry. Immigration Officers (as we were then) could refer any passenger to the PMI if they were perceived to be a health threat. PMIs were empowered to issue us with a form “Port 30” which gave us grounds to refuse leave to enter on medical grounds. New migrants coming to settle in the UK were routinely checked for communicable diseases before a visa was issued.

As passenger numbers grew, PMIs were gradually removed from our ports of entry on grounds of “efficiency”. We stopped checking health credentials as a condition of entry. The greater threat was not the importation of disease; it was of importation of dangerous, harmful, or non-compliant people and goods. Health checks fell off our radar.

Between January and April 2020 Singapore, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand all systematically introduced strict border controls to mitigate the importation of Covid at their borders. Travel to those countries is now restricted to their own nationals and family members only; and 14-day quarantine at a designated location is mandatory on arrival. These countries have managed to control the spread of the virus much more effectively that has been the case in other countries, including the UK, Europe, and the US.

Although we introduced strict quarantine measures for passengers returning on evacuation flights from Wuhan in January 2020, no measures were introduced for flights or arrivals from other destinations, increasing the risk that the virus would be imported from other countries.

In June we started to ask inbound passengers to complete an on-line passenger locator form (PLF) to “self-certify” quarantine; but enforcement was “light touch” and there was no requirement to undergo a test, either before travel or upon arrival.

My previous recommendation to require airlines, ferry companies and rail companies to check health credentials for all passengers boarding flights, ferries, and trains to the UK (as they do with passports and visas) was finally implemented in January 2021, a year after Covid was first detected in Wuhan.

This new requirement requires the production of a completed PLF, and evidence that a negative Covid test had been taken within 72 hours of travel. Boarding should be denied to anybody unable to meet this requirement – but as yet no compliance framework has been set up between to establish whether or not this has been done. Meanwhile we are seeing all kinds of “test certificates” turning up at our ports in various languages and scripts, some of which are clearly fake.

The new requirements have put an additional strain on the Border Force. Officers must now check PLF and negative test forms as well as passports; interview all passengers to determine travel history and purpose of travel to the UK; and now – where they identify a case of a UK citizen or resident arriving from a “red list” location who must self-isolate – liaise with local authorities and health agencies to enforce mandatory quarantine in nearby hotels.

Although the UK government published its UK Border 2025 Strategy on December 17 2020, this did not focus specifically upon the pandemic. Many of the transformations therein are relevant (for example shifting to upstream intervention) – but it does not specify how this would be done with regard to health checks.

The Government must now develop a Counter Pandemic Border Strategy (CPBS) to manage the second and subsequent waves of Covid-19, drawing upon lessons learned in other countries, as a matter of urgency.

This should include the following factors:

  1. The protection of Public Health is a key requirement of the UK Border, alongside the protection of National Security and Public Policy.
  2. Departments should establish clear lines of effort between them to implement the CPBS.
  3. PMIs and facilities should be reinstalled at UK ports of entry, to work in tandem with the UK Border Force in implementing the strategy.
  4. “In country” pandemic threat levels should be translated into similar response levels at the Border, as they are for national security.
  5. The Government should work with international carriers and organisations to develop a new form of health pass which would meet internationally approved standards and would certify the health status of all international travellers at point of booking and check-in, in the same way as it does for passport and visa data.
  6. The Home Office should conduct an urgent review on pre boarding / pre-clearance capabilities with international carriers to ensure they comply with requirements to check health credentials prior to boarding, building upon the existing international liaison officer (ILO) network at key source and transit airports.
  7. The Government should establish a cross Departmental Project Team to implement mandatory quarantine requirements for passengers arriving at UK ports of entry including tests for symptoms, safe and secure transport to designated locations, and in-country enforcement.
  8. The Government should conduct an urgent review of exit checks to ensure a co-ordinated response between UK Border Force, local police and carrying companies on requirements to check outbound travellers for permission to travel, and how this will be enforced in practice.
  9. The Home Office should establish a national critical incident command and control infrastructure which can be stood up at short notice to respond to current and emerging health threat levels at the UK Border. This should include regular tests and exercises.

The UK Border Force is the envy of many countries around the world. And we will get through Brexit, in the end.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic raises significant new challenges for the UK Border. As we begin to turn the tide on this virus, it will be important for us to learn lessons on how to make better use of border controls to protect public health. On this, we must try harder.