Lessons in Business Continuity: UK Border Force’s e-gates outage

On Tuesday 7th May at 7:44pm, a system network issue with electronic ‘e‑gates’ led to widespread disruption at multiple UK airports. While most flights had returned to normal by the morning, the outage highlighted some areas in which Border Force could improve their existing plans for continuity.

Automated e-gates use facial recognition to check passenger’s identities at the border, ostensibly to reduce the time it takes to process arrivals. Despite this, an unexpected technical failure left thousands of arrivals at airports across the UK stuck in queues for up to two hours.

The Home Office was quick to clarify that at no point was border security compromised. In this case, it was a network routing issue that caused the problem. However, recurring issues with the gates serve as an excellent reminder of why robust contingency plans are so important – particularly when there is a significant degree of both public and regulatory scrutiny.

The way in which the response was handled, both good and bad, provides an excellent opportunity to explore some fundamentals of resilience. With this in mind, we’ve compiled a list of five Business Continuity planning questions to consider.

1. Do you have an effective contingency plan?

Even though arrivals were still able to be processed manually at the border, the e-gates have proven to be a persistent issue. Network faults alone are a significant problem, but repeated failures – including a system upgrade fault in May 2023 and multiple outages in 2021 – raise questions about the efficacy of existing contingency plans (as well as testing & exercising).

As a representative of the Immigration Services Union explained: "We're assured that [contingency plans] are there, but then the next time the gates go down, it's evident that there just simply isn't the infrastructure, or the staff anymore, to try and process people through the border while maintaining border security.”

Unions will always make the case for higher staffing levels, but when a manual workaround is your contingency solution, the level of staff completely determines the speed of processing. In practice, the lack of infrastructure and staff to manage passengers during the outage indicates that plans may not have been adequately tested or implemented.

Despite this, once engineers detected the issue the contingency response was activated within six minutes, a response time which speaks to more thorough preparedness elsewhere.

2. Does it work? And have you tested it properly?

The need for effective contingency plans applies to both Border Force and their partner airports, who need to operate seamlessly to mitigate disruptions in their supply chain.

In practical terms, resilience against disruption is a muscle to be exercised, not a finish line to reach. Regular rehearsals, evaluations and improvements to response are essential to ensure they work effectively when needed.

This lesson applies to us all. One of the most difficult aspects of Business Continuity is managing the dependencies in your supply chain which are out of your direct control. Including suppliers as part of your own exercises is the best route to improving awareness and response for both parties.

3. How quickly can you mobilise necessary resources?

The recent disruption appears to have been a relatively short-lived issue, which fortunately for affected airports and teams occurred during a non-peak period for travel. But the potential is there for a larger – or perhaps even total – system outage at a much busier time.

Imagine if e-gates went down across the country at the start of the school holidays, persisting for several days or more. Contingency plans for such an event are almost certainly in place, but the chaos caused by a short outage draws attention to the speed at which Border Force, or any organisation for that matter, can mobilise resources in a crisis.

Furthermore, the rapid deployment of trained personnel to manage the increased workload is a critical aspect of an effective response. Ensuring that staff can be quickly and efficiently allocated to areas of need is crucial to minimise disruption.

4. How long can you operate in ‘manual mode’?

The ability to operate in ‘manual mode’ for long enough to resolve an issue is a cornerstone of Business Continuity. In this instance, this involved manually processing arrivals attempting to maintain high standards for border and passenger security. But similar procedures would apply to any organisation affected by a technology outage.

This isn’t unique to the e-gates system. As processes and systems are digitised and automated, you gain efficiency benefits. But as manual processes become less common, it becomes harder to revert.

Like automated checkouts in supermarkets, over the last decade we’ve seen the balance of manual to automated systems shift. When there are outages with automated systems, there are fewer tills or manual gates, and fewer staff to pick up the slack.

Assumptions about the duration and frequency of manual operations must be realistic. Preparing for longer outages, especially during times of increased operational and/or logistical demand, requires thorough planning. Resources must also be allocated appropriately to ensure an adequate level of operations, and that impact to customers is kept to a minimum.

5. Are you equipped to mitigate the impacts?

In this case, communication is key, both in the event of a crisis and in response to previous ones. The most recent outage was promptly followed by apologies to travellers and affected travel partners. Claiming accountability was an important and commendable step, but a more comprehensive communications plan needs to be in place if outages are expected to continue.

On a more practical level, those affected also expect an adequate degree of readiness, including clear demonstrations of end-to-end business resilience. For Border Force, this included ensuring that those stuck in queues had adequate space and access to water, as well as individual airports’ willingness to waive parking charges.

Final takeaways

The e-gate outage serves as a critical lesson in Business Continuity and resilience. Organisations must maintain dynamic and tested contingency plans, ensure their ability to rapidly mobilise resources and prepare for extended manual operations.

At Databarracks, we believe that Business Resilience is an integrated, organisation-wide effort. It should involve senior leadership, all business and operations functions, technology teams, information systems – and apply across the entire supply chain.

Simply put, organisations must plan to be resilient across their whole environment. A resilient business looks much further afield than their own four walls. Monitoring supply chains is vital, as an issue with one link in the chain can cause chaos further down the line.

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