Matthew Lynn Matthew Lynn

Passport e-gate outages are an embarrassment to Britain

The failure of the ePassport gates at British airports caused chaos (Getty Images)

Queues that stretch for hours. Technology that doesn’t work. And a system so poorly designed that this isn’t the first time it’s broken down. There appears to be a perfectly innocent explanation for the failure of the passport e-gate system across the UK’s airports last night – a ‘system network issue’ – despite the wilder conspiracy theories that immediately started circling on the internet. But one point is surely clear: the e-gates have become a national embarrassment – and if we can’t rely on them to work, we should get rid of them.

Some passengers spent longer waiting to go through passport control than they did on their flights

The scenes at airports including Heathrow, Gatwick, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Bristol, Newcastle and Manchester were disgraceful. British citizens trying to return home were left waiting on airport floors for hours. Foreign businessmen and tourists, some of whom were coming to ‘Global Britain’ for the first time, were greeted by scenes of chaos. Some passengers spent longer waiting to go through passport control than they did on their flights.

The e-gates, which the government insists are supposed to ‘enable quicker travel into the UK’, went down late on Tuesday. It wasn’t until shortly after midnight that they were back up again. The Home Office said ‘at no point was border security compromised, and there is no indication of malicious cyber activity’. But that’s little comfort to stranded passengers.

It’s inevitable, of course, that there will be times when computers don’t work. And yet passport control is a place where the failure of a computer system is simply not acceptable. To start with, it is not just inconvenient for anyone who is held up for three or four hours; it is a very poor advert for the whole country. There is a reason why developing nations spend a fortune on airports: it sends a message that they are modern, growing and open for business. By contrast, our failed e-gates make it look like the UK is close to collapse. 

E-gates might be a good idea if they speed up arrivals, but if they don’t work perfectly we should not be relying on them. At the very least, we should have an adequate back up in place for when they go wrong. This isn’t the first time e-gates have failed. This is simply not good enough. 

The latest failure risks becoming emblematic of a government that has ceased to function. If you make controlling the borders a key priority, as the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has done in speech after speech, then it is a good idea to make sure the system for scanning passports actually works. If the Home Office can’t even get this right, there is probably no point in expecting it to tackle far tougher issues such as asylum seekers. It clearly no longer functions properly, and until that is fixed nothing will improve. 

Again and again, the government installs IT systems to save money, and create an illusion of progress. But too often they don’t work properly, failing with catastrophic results. The queues at UK airports overnight were a national embarrassment – and will only add to the sense of accelerating decline. 

Matthew Lynn
Written by
Matthew Lynn
Matthew Lynn is a financial columnist and author of ‘Bust: Greece, The Euro and The Sovereign Debt Crisis’ and ‘The Long Depression: The Slump of 2008 to 2031’

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