12% of UK immigration staff had Covid-19 symptoms from January to April

Nearly 2,000 Border Force and UK Visas & Immigration staff recorded a period of sickness

A UK border sign at passport control in the arrivals hall of Terminal 2 at Heathrow Airport, west of London. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

Nearly 2,000 immigration staff, including workers at the UK’s ports and airports, were off sick with Covid-19 symptoms in the first four months of the year, with more than half absent before the lockdown was imposed, the Guardian can reveal.

Between 1 January and 29 April there were 1,880 Border Force and UK Visas & Immigration (UKVI) staff recorded as beginning a period of sickness absence due to Covid-19 symptoms, equal to 12% of the combined workforce for both agencies.

Of these, 516 Border Force and 529 UKVI workers were off before 23 March, a total of 1,045 or 7% of the combined workforce. The absences peaked in the week to 22 March, just before lockdown, for both agencies. Only five of the cases were recorded between 1 January and 1 March.

Unions representing immigration staff reacted to the figures with anger and criticised the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) provided to workers.

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, the biggest union representing Border Force staff, said: “Border Force management have at some airports actively told PCS members at passport control not to wear PPE because it gave the ‘wrong impression’ to travelling passengers.

“Well, the impression they have given is that they care more about image than the health and safety of Border Force staff. And these figures are a searing indictment of their approach.”

Lucy Moreton, of the Immigration Services Union, said: “The statistics clearly show the impact on staff prior to the lockdown and the immediate impact that had in limiting the spread of the virus amongst Border Force and UKVI staff. 

“Obtaining suitable PPE for staff, particularly staff at the border, is an ongoing struggle. Although sickness rates amongst border and immigration staff never reached the “critical” 30% of absence which Home Office originally planned for, there is no excuse for the failures to protect key workers. 

“Staff at the border see staff in supermarkets, delivery drivers etc – as much key workers as they themselves are – wearing masks, face shields [and encourage to adopt] social distancing measures. Yet they continue to attend work actively discouraged from complying with the government recommendations regarding face coverings and with masks issued as PPE only in very limited circumstances.”

The figures were provided to the Labour MP Stephen Doughty in answer to a parliamentary question.

There were 23.7m arrivals into the UK by air, land and sea in the first three months of the year, including 18.1m arrivals by air between 1 January and 23 March. Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, told MPs there was “a big influx” of coronavirus cases from Italy and Spain in early March.

Doughty, a former member of the home affairs select committee, told the Guardian: “This shocking revelation in answer to my question shows one of the likely impacts of failing to introduce proper measures to protect staff at the border when they were most needed – in the first quarter of the year – when over 23 million British and other travellers entered the UK without proper health checks or formal quarantine.

“While some of this illness will have undoubtedly been picked up outside of work, the fact Sir Patrick Vallance admitted that we had imported many, many cases, coupled with these figures, suggests that many frontline staff may have been exposed and infected in the course of their work.

“The government must urgently publish the scientific advice it used, and an explanation for their failure to act when it could have made a difference.”

At least two Border Force staff have contracted Covid-19 and died.

Critics of the government’s approach have questioned if more could have been done to screen arrivals earlier in the pandemic, particularly from hotspots, including Wuhan in China – the source of the Covid-19 outbreak – and northern Italy.

Of the 18.1 million arrivals between 1 January and 23 March, only 273 passengers on three flights from Wuhan and one flight from Japan were formally quarantined in government-supported isolation facilities.

The government stopped issuing guidance at the border to arrivals from specific countries – including from Italy and China – to self-isolate on 13 March, 10 days before the lockdown was imposed. Since then, there has been little intervention other than advice provided on leaflets and posters. There were more than 100,000 arrivals by air into the UK in April.

Since then, the government has announced it is to enforce a 14-day period of self isolation for all arrivals into the UK from 8 June, prompting many to question why such a policy was not implemented earlier in the crisis.

The figures also show that in the first four months of the year, there were a further 2,345 Border Force and UKVI staff recorded as beginning a period of isolation at home either because a member of their household had Covid-19 symptoms or because the employee themselves was vulnerable to infection. Only five of the cases were recorded between 1 January and 1 March.

Combined with those that had fallen ill themselves, this totals 27% of the workforce for Border Force and UKVI.

The most recent Home Office annual report, published in June last year, showed there were 8,127 permanent employees at Border Force and 7,422 workers at UK Visas & Immigration, a total of 15,549.

The answers were provided by the minister for immigration compliance, Chris Philp.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The figures show Border Force and UKVI absences due to coronavirus are consistent with those across the UK at the time.

“The safety of the public and our staff is of paramount importance, which is why Border Force staff have been provided with the necessary personal protective equipment.

Protective screens have been installed in ports, and we are ensuring social distancing is maintained in passenger arrivals areas.”

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