Written evidence submitted by the Immigration Services Union (COR0107)
- Thank you for the opportunity to address the committee on this subject; which is a matter of serious concern to our membership. I understand the committee’s focus to be on PPE available at the Border with specific reference to the CV19 situation; and on the issue of quarantine or similar for those arriving in the UK.
- The roles of Border Force are varied. Of relevance to this issue Border Force (BF) staff check passports and personal import goods at air and sea ports across the UK. BF staff are also stationed for this purpose in Paris and Brussels, providing presence also at Lille and Amsterdam. BF staff travel from the UK to serve at Calais, Dunquerque and Coquelles. BF staff also check incoming freight at sea ports; air and postal freight in Coventry and Heathrow. BF staff man the Cutters and Coastal Patrol vessels involved in the interception of small boat migration; and provide some of the initial identification and transport service for individuals landed in the UK.
- For the purposes of a discussion of PPE Provision in connection with CV19 the roles can be broadly split into 3 main sections: Staff at a primary check point (PCP), staff on cutters and other Vessels and staff whose freight work includes the detection of hidden clandestines. At some locations staff may fulfil more than one role in any given shift.
PPE on the Primary Check Point (PCP)
- This encompasses staff who check passports in air and sea ports including small airfields, general maritime, car and coach controls.
- Nitrile gloves are available to all staff as part of business as usual. This has not changed during the CV19 outbreak. Staff are encourage to wear gloves but not there is very limited information provided on how to put them on, how often to change them, how to remove them safely or how to dispose of them.
- Staff should have alcohol hand gel available on every passport desk and scattered throughout the back office accommodation. Areas have experienced difficulty in accessing supplies which are ordered through a centralised unit and dispatched though localised business support units which only work Monday to Friday. Staff have reported having difficulty obtaining replacements at night or on weekends when available stock is locked in a closed office. There have also been stock issues more generally with difficulty in obtaining stock. We have pressed BF management for an assurance process to ensure continuity of supply to front line staff but this has not been progressed.
- Staff have asked for permission to wear masks, either BF provided or which they have provided themselves. BF follow the advice of PHE and WHO that masks are not effective protection outside a clinical setting and we understand that. However staff also see masks in daily use outside work and hear the reports in the media and from other countries requiring the use of masks. Until this week BF had a range of local practices allowing staff who wished to wear a mask which they had purchased to do so. On Monday 21st April managers were instructed that staff were no longer permitted to do this as a national corporate line. Members have reported concerns to us that it they wear a mask for whatever reason they maybe subject to disciplinary action.
- The design of the physical desk used by the officers at ports and airports does vary. At one extreme staff are secured inside a Perspex “box” entirely separated from the traveller who hands documents etc. through a pass similar to the seen at banks or post offices. At the other extreme there is no physical desk at all and the interaction is entirely open. The majority of staff are seated at an open standing height desk which allows for the passenger standing opposite to be separated from them by a distance of about one metre, handing documents over a surface at about chest height to a standing average height male. Smaller travellers must stand to the side and interact much more closely with the officer. Once cleared the traveller passes to the side of the officer at a distance of less than one metre. Some of these control desks have a Perspex screen similar to those now appearing in supermarkets; but most do not. Even those with screens then have the traveller pass alongside them at close distance without any screen.
- Alternatively travellers with the appropriate passport may use the passport e-gates which avoids the need for face to face contact with an officer; but which itself presents other issues. Passengers waiting to see a passport officer queue in long free form “snakes” controlled by tensor barriers. There is no specific provision for social distancing in the queue. There are no routine medical checks on arriving passengers and BF give out no routine information on what to do on arrival, although there is a short form available for passengers who fear they may be symptomatic to report this to PHE.
- Also of relevance on the PCP is the rate of cleaning for IT and publically accessible surfaces such as the e-gates. At present there is no enhanced cleaning schedule. BF staff swap fixed point desks every hour or so, and at peak times fill the main control desks starting with the middle desks and fanning outward. Each officer will use several different desks in the course of one shift. It is almost inevitable that they will at some point contaminate their hands or gloves with virus then touch the keyboard in front of them. The virus then remains viable on that shiny surface for as much as possibly 7 – 9 days. Passengers who pass through the e-gates touch the surfaces, particularly where the passport is placed on the reader. Also they may sneeze or cough depositing virus particles on or within the gate itself. Both the e-gates and the desk based IT kit is cleaned only on a 6 month specialist schedule. The potential for transmission is significant and staff have commented upon this to no avail.
PPE on board seagoing vessels
- This is probably one of the most complicated areas to provide PPE for as staff are involved in a sea based rescue which inevitably involves very close physical contact with those they need to lift from an unseaworthy vessel or from the sea itself. Staff have non waterproof coveralls and helmets including a visor. They have access to gloves. Staff do not have a facemask despite the very close physical contact; it is understood that it is not possible to have a sufficiently robust mask in the wet conditions.
- There is nowhere on the Cutters or CPVs to isolate someone who appears to show symptoms. In any event it is very difficult to tell if someone in that condition is symptomatic or not. They are fairly universally cold and wet, scared and exhausted. The very fittest look fairly unwell at the point of rescue.
- In addition to the CV19 risk individuals travelling in a small boat have often been seated in bilge water which often contains urine, faeces and vomit. Their clothing, and often by extension the coveralls of the person performing the rescue, is frequently contaminated with body fluids which poses a transmission risk for a wide range of diseases, not just CV19.
PPE on dealing with small boat migrants
- On arrival on shore migrants are met by a team which may consist of BF staff or Immigration Enforcement (IE) staff. The role of that team is to assist the landing, then transport the migrants to a suitable facility for fingerprinting, identification and onward processing. Where small boat migrants have reached shore themselves, as happened at Hastings recently, they are met by IE Teams. Until the first week in April both BF and IE had only gloves issued to them; no masks or aprons. Following adverse media attention on 1st April where staff, wrongly attributed as Border Force but in fact Immigration Enforcement, were photographed by the press without PPE and not maintaining a social distance. IE staff were then issued with facemasks and disposable aprons for use in their duties. There was a period of confusion where BF attempted to continued to adhere to the PHE advice but they have now conceded that staff doing the same role should be afforded the same level of PPE.
PPE on dealing with clandestine arrivals
- Clandestine arrivals continue to be detected in significant numbers both in France and on arrival in the UK. In France they are largely detected by a contractor company. The PPE provided to them is outside my remit. BF staff in Northern France also encounter clandestines concealed in freight; as do staff at arriving seaports. Also IE staff attending a “lorry drop” where previously undetected migrants make their presence known, or exit the vehicle, once the vehicle in inside the UK. Although as a general proposition the physical condition of concealed migrants is not as immediately severe as that of migrants in small boats they have still often been concealed for a considerable length of time. Human bodily waste is usually present but not necessarily in a way in which contamination of the officer is inevitable.
- Staff dealing with clandestine migrants arriving in this manner have only gloves as PPE. There is less need for close physical contact in the same way as when pulling someone onto a boat; but it is often still necessary to assist or support someone who is physically weak. BF staff are instructed that if someone appears symptomatic they are to maintain distance and call for medical aid.
Procedures after arrival
- I am specifically asked to comment upon the question of whether or not arrivals in the UK should be specifically quarantined. This is largely a political matter and not within my remit. I can only advise as to the process currently.
- Travellers arriving in a conventional manner are simply assessed for eligibility to enter the UK. The vast majority of travellers arriving in this way currently are repatriations. Once through the arrivals control they simply proceed by whatever transport method they have chosen to their end destination. I do not know what, if any, information might be given by the FCO, the Airline or any other body as to any requirement to self isolate for any period of time. BF do not give any such information.
- Clandestine migrants are transported to a suitable facility for identification, mainly by fingerprints. In common with the process for a non clandestine asylum seeker at a port, they are assessed to determine if detention is required; although in the current situation this is limited only to individuals who present a high risk of harm to the UK. If the migrant is, or claims to be, a minor they are allocated to social services within the county of arrival. Equally if they are a family group including a minor they are housed by the housing services of the county in which they arrive. If they are a lone adult, and the vast majority are single adult males, they are shared between local authorities and may be relocated to any area of the UK. They are offered housing, but are not obliged to accept that offer. I do not have figures on how many have family or other contacts that they choose to join rather than accept local authority housing. They are given a preloaded debit card to purchase food and necessities. I do not know what, if any, information is given to them by the local authorities on social distancing, self isolation, how or where to purchase food.