A minister has apologised for delays at the borders after travellers complained about “total chaos” at airports as schools closed and summer holidays began for millions.
Airports and airlines are expecting their busiest weekend of the year, with hundreds more flights and thousands more passengers than at the peak of the pandemic.
But passengers complained of long queues to get through departures and arrivals on Saturday, with images posted on social media showing crowded terminals.
Policing minister Kit Malthouse apologised for delays at the borders as he suggested airline staff could be among those given isolation exemptions to relieve the “pingdemic”.
He told Times Radio on Sunday: “I know Border Force are one of the frontline services that will be able to access more of this test and release.
“And I think at Heathrow yesterday we had a technical issue with the e-gates where they went down for 90 minutes or so. That caused a problem and I’m very sorry about that, and I’m sorry for the people that were inconvenienced.
“Hopefully Border Force will be relieved of some of the aspects of the pingdemic.”
Asked whether airline staff could receive exemptions as well, he said: “Yes, we would be in conversation with employers.”
More than 600,000 people in England and Wales were told to quarantine by the NHS Covid-19 app in the week to July 14, with the Government saying on Saturday that an extra 200 testing sites will be opened so that daily contact testing can be “rolled out to further critical workplaces in England”.
Heathrow Airport said it was expecting about 128,000 passengers on Saturday and Sunday, though that is still down from pre-pandemic daily volumes of around 230,000 to 260,000 in July 2019.
Chief executive John Holland-Kaye said additional staff would be on hand to ensure passengers have a “smooth journey”.
But Fiona Brett, a violinist travelling to Frankfurt with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, said she had to queue for two hours to check in to her flight from Heathrow on Saturday morning.
Ms Brett, from Watlington, Oxfordshire, said she had checked in online but then had to show her Covid vaccination certificate to staff, adding that the “total chaos” resulted in her 9.30am flight being delayed.
“They were constantly calling people out of the queue for the next flight that was closing,” she told the PA news agency.
“Actually it would have been better to turn up at 8.30 and get called from the back of the queue to the front – total chaos.
“I believe the queues were caused not by too many people but by the airlines having to do all the extra checks before properly checking in.”
Other passengers took to social media to complain about queues at London Stansted, with one describing the scenes as “chaotic”.
Manchester Airports Group said it is expecting 958 flights at Manchester Airport from Friday to Monday, 224 at East Midlands Airport and 1,330 at London Stansted.
This is up from the 632, 177 and 735 respectively during the same weekend last year, but still well below the 2,512 at Manchester, 503 at East Midlands and 2,139 at London Stansted in July 2019.
Meanwhile, Gatwick Airport said it expects to see around 250 to 260 flights and between 25,000 and 27,000 passengers a day over the weekend, up from a low of just 15 flights a day at the height of the pandemic.
Budget airline easyJet said it is preparing to carry some 135,000 passengers from the UK this weekend on more than 80 routes to green and amber-list destinations across Europe.
In total there will be 251 easyJet flights taking to the skies, with popular destinations including Malta, Madeira, Malaga in Spain, Faro and Lisbon in Portugal, and Corfu and Athens in Greece, it added.
Tui said it has almost double the number of passengers travelling from Friday to Sunday compared with last weekend, with the Balearic islands and Greece the “clear favourites” and Palma, Ibiza and Rhodes the most popular destinations.
Jet2 said it has 170 flights departing to more than 40 destinations over the weekend, up from around 70 flights to six locations the previous weekend.
Since May, quarantine and testing requirements have been determined by whether a person is entering the UK from a green, amber or red list location.
Travellers returning from a green destination are not required to self-isolate, but only a handful of major European summer hotspots are in that tier.
Spain, Italy and Greece are among the countries on the amber list.
Those returning from an amber country must quarantine at home for 10 days unless they have had both doses of a coronavirus vaccine.