This was the second time this year that I have been trapped in the UK. The first time was in March. I was on my way to a holiday in Morocco and staying a few days first in the UK when the Coronavirus hit.
We were not sure exactly what would happen and so we kept an eye on the news. Bit-by-bit countries were starting to go into Lockdown. Italy was first and certainly had the biggest problems with people being confined to their homes and only allowed out for emergency shopping but other countries we closing their borders in an unprecedented move not seen since the last World War.
After some discussion, we decided it was best to cancel the holiday and fly back to Estonia just in case. At the time various people jeered. “We were too cautious”, “what a waste of money”. Certainly we would have liked to get some winter sun and it did seem a pity.
As it turned out, this was the right decision. One country after another in Europe began closing its borders. We didn’t know it yet but we were about to enter the largest scene of “moats being filled” and “drawbridges being pulled up”, ever in history. It was about to become a near total closure of countries across Europe. Our original flight was cancelled, so we booked British Airways. It was then also cancelled so we booked SAS. We drove to London, boarded and flex via Stockholm Arlanda and then managed to catch the flight to Tallinn. That was one of the last flights. At each step we were waiting for someone to say the next leg of the trip had been cancelled, but no, we were home.
Better to be home in the midst of a pandemic. Plus it turned out that the situation in Estonia was better than most of the world. There was a lockdown, but relative freedom to get outside, walk around or do sports. Since Estonia was already pretty computer-based, goods could be sent, systems were in place and a lot of people could still work. Of course travel, hospitality and anything which requires physical presence was stymied. Otherwise, life via the computer and telephone went on.
Fast forward to December. I am in the UK to spend Christmas with my mother. She is on her own, recently had a major heart operation, is already 85 and I had not seen her since Spring. So I needed to make all the Christmases count. The virus was picking up again, but I thought I should be able to fly in on 20th and back out on 26th before anything major happened. How wrong I was…
On Saturday 19th December, Boris Johnson announced the UK would be increasing its lockdown by introducing a new measurement, called “Tier 4” for London and parts of the South East. This was a strict lockdown similar to earlier in the year. It was a little ahead of most of Europe. So far, so normal, but he decided to mention that there was a new variant of the virus which spreads much quicker. Using some pseudo-science, he announced it would spread 70% more effectively. This was echoed by the health minister. On Sunday morning, 20th December all hell broke loose. First France announced that it would be banning all flights, then boats, trains and car transport from the UK. The rest of Europe woke up and by Sunday evening other major economies had joined France in the ban.
I saw the writing on the wall and decided to change my flight. Who knew what would happen with flights and with the Brexit deal. If these problems went on beyond 1st January as some countries has already indicated and there was no Brexit deal, maybe it would be very hard to get anywhere in Europe at all.
I rescheduled my flight from 26th to 21st, leaving lunchtime the next day. I thought that even if Finland announced a ban, it would give travellers until the end of the next day to return. As it happened, they gave them until 12.00.. my flight would arrived 3 hours later. Cancelled.
Most of Monday I spent investigating which flights were possible and not massively overpriced. A flight Norway was already over 700 Euro one way, so I booked two trips, just in case one was cancelled. Via Poland Tuesday evening (sleeping in the terminal overnight) and via Stockholm Arlanda Wednesday during the day, remembering that Sweden was more flexible in its travel policies last time.
Poland closed its borders on Tuesday and Sweden announced there would be no more flights from Wednesday. I was exactly a few hours behind the curve with each booking. A few hours here or there and I would have been able to get back.
So, by Wednesday basically all of Europe was banning UK flights. The Baltics soon announced emergency rescue flights to get people home, but it was unsure when/ if these would run, depending on demand.
What was left? Only exotic destinations. I could fly via Athens but the second leg from Athens to Tallinn would require changing planes 3 times and therefore exiting the airport transit area, and thus being held for 10 days in quarantine unless I could convince the officials that I was just going out to come back in. Risky.
Via Cyprus had the same issue. I wouldn’t mind being somewhere warm for a day or two, but with no guarantee I could fly on to Tallinn it was too much risk again.
I had also heard about Dubai which was conducting tests on passengers and letting them through if they were covid negative. So I could fly to Dubai, stay a day or so and fly to Tallinn. Possible but pretty long.
Finally I plumped for a flight from London to Kiev on 24th December. The rule was that you could enter Ukraine with pre-paid insurance to cover any covid-related medical expenses and perhaps be required to install an app on your smartphone to monitor where you were. If you were covid negative you would not need to install the app.
Since a few locations such as Dubai and Cyprus has instigated a rule whereby travellers could enter if they were previously tested covid negative, I thought it was likely the problem would eventually be solved by countries requiring a covid test to travel. Therefore I also managed to secure a covid test 24 hours before my flight to Kiev… also I case they increased the restrictions – that would give me a backup plan.
This in itself was not easy. Naturally you could not have a free test unless you had symptoms. A few private organisations such as Boots Chemist had some 48 hour tests – too slow, it was already 22nd plus none of the branches were near me and all of these organisations were booked solid. A few entrepreneurial types offered lab tests within 24 hours, but you needed to send and receive a registered parcel. Due to the chaos with the yet unsolved Brexit issues and the collapse of goods transport between UK and France, the UK courier system (DHL, DPD etc.) had basically collapsed and no one could ensure that any courier-parcels would arrive quicker than 3 days if they even took your order.
After some research, I found that someone discovered (somehow) that Sofitel in Heathrow airport was offering a “Test and Rest” package where if you booked a room in the hotel, you could have a 24 hour guaranteed test result for your flight the next day. Thank goodness for commercialism and the power of quality hotel concierges to get you what you need at the last minute.
Of course, this was not cheap. I had now bought 4 flights, 3 of which were cancelled anyway at Christmas prices and last-minute fares plus the 4th flight nicely price-boosted to take account of captive demand and an expensive hotel room I didn’t need. The devil to capitalism and greedy companies!
My next problem – no one was allowed to go to Tier 4 areas (including Heathrow where the hotel was located) without a reason, such as onward travel which in itself was recommended against. I didn’t know what I would face, but I drove there anyway early on 23rd to be sure my test would be ready on time. Since the new rules had just kicked off, I imaged that I would be able to slip through the net before things became too tough. As it happened, the roads were quiet, there were no police cordons and I was not stopped or asked what I was doing.
The hotel service was good. I arrived at the hotel and the receptionist helped me through the covid procedure.. installing an app then taking your test-kit and in the room spitting into a test tube. You needed a large amount of spit, so I probably spit about 100 times into that tube. Not very enjoyable but there are many worse things in the world. Everything was sealed and prepared for dispatch. This all took about an hour and the parking was free for 15 minutes. I asked if this could be deducted from the bill, but the hotel required extra payment. *&££!!!$$$£$. Money talks.
The next morning I received a telephone message and email that the covid test was negative. Great, extra proof just in case I needed it to travel.
Things were not over yet. I drove back from the hotel since I wanted to bring some UK food items back to Estonia and they needed a cool bag to travel. I packed and waited to see if Ukraine would cancel the flights. They didn’t! The next day went smoothly. Up to Heathrow, check in the bags and board the plane. The airport was pretty empty, however, compared to my two other flights to the UK, this plane was totally jammed full of people. People going to Ukraine where the covid rules were not so strict. Not a great idea but what to do. Helpfully and unlike all the other flights, the Ukrainian stewardesses were wearing some kind of full body protection suits like they were going into a radiation chamber. That was not very comforting. I kept my mask on and crossed my fingers.
Arriving in Kiev, things went well. Not many people in the airport of course, no problems with customs and I grabbed a taxi with Uber. Luckily I had been various times to and through-Kiev airport previously as well as many riskier countries, so I knew where everything was. Otherwise it could have been a more traumatic experience.
Taking the taxi to the hotel was a bit concerning in case the driver had covid, but again, what to do. The hotel was decent quality and quiet – to be sure, I booked an international hotel chain where the cleanliness and precautions would be taken seriously. I knew that in Kiev a lower quality place might well be able to arrange a small gratuity for the health inspection and who knows what kind of sanitation would be possible.
I slept according to UK time but even though I was pretty tired, I did not sleep well.. the bed was quite hard and the room was too warm. Anyway, I wasn’t dead (yet), so everything was all ok!
In the morning I ate my own food, caught a taxi back to Borispol Airport… taxi driver without a mask… then took my bags through the airport check-in. Once thing that was done well, at each stop, coming from the aeroplane, entering the airport, everyone was checked with a temperature measuring device and (I assumed) who was sick was not allowed in.
I checked-in the bags and without further incident boarded my flight to Frankfurt. It was almost empty. Arriving in Frankfurt airport which I have travelled to many times was a shock. Everything was closed and it was totally empty, even more so than Heathrow. I only saw people from my flight although a few more flights were listed on the departures board.
It was a long wait, but I read the news, did some work (wifi was still going) and eventually took the flight, which was fairly empty, back to Tallinn. At about 00.30 I was back in Estonia! In Tallinn I did the airport covid test. It was a short wait for me and the admin was efficient although some people seems to be taking a long time with it. I had heard some bad stories about the text itself, but it was very quick and not painful… although a bit ticklish and not really pleasant bit I can’t say very bad. My nose felt funny for half an hour afterwards like I wanted to sneeze or something. No real problem.
I then took a taxi back home and around 01.00 I was back. Safe at last, I unpacked and then slid into my comfortable bed and slept. Not dead. Not sick. Not incapacitated in some strange way. Only another year, a lighter wallet and a backpack full of new experiences.