More travels in the time of Covid

Unlike the 2020 Covid travel stories of people escaping before lockdowns, the talk now is about vaccinations and tests, the lifting of restrictions and scientific advice versus political will. 

Getting to Nice was easier, if not more surreal, than we thought it would be. Armed with our lateral-flow tests certificates (at £50 each), we arrived at a half-closed Gatwick with the ambiance of an airport in the off-season. On our way to the gate we were stopped by an official asking to see our vaccination certificates. When he saw mine, he said ‘Sorry, we can’t let you through. You have to have had your second dose at least four weeks ago.’ For a few seconds I was in panic mode, imagining David going to France without me. I caught my breath and in near unison David and I said, ‘No, it’s two weeks, not four.’ I offered him my lateral-flow test certificate, but he wasn’t interested. This person whose job it was to check documents did not know the rules that he was supposed to ensure we were following. Luckily another Gatwick worker came to our rescue, agreeing that my second vaccination needed to be only two-weeks old. With that we were off to the Cote d’Azur, where we waved our vaccination certificates in the air as we whizzed through passport control.  

When we saw French neighbours for the first time in ten months, they asked straight away if we had been vaccinated. One asked which vaccines we had, followed by raised eyebrows when we mentioned AstraZeneca – apparently, not the right answer. Whatever we did, Covid was not far away. It was the backdrop of all social interaction, screening who’s hugging, who’s elbowing, who’s pecking each cheek, for which I have mastered the air kiss. In France, masks are still obligatory in public transport and indoor public spaces like shops, museums and cinemas. Some people don’t know how to wear masks and use them to cover their chin, or if you’re young, male and really cool you wear them on your wrists. As we needed to take trams everyday, we soon realised that we were testing the efficacy of our unpopular AstraZeneca jabs.

By the end of the second week, we heard the good news that we had expected – people coming from France, which is on the UK’s amber list, will not have to self-isolate for ten days and will only need to take one PCR test on their return to the UK. Relief all around. We continued to fill our days with  the Nicoise sunshine, morning walks, coffees and croissants at terraced cafes often followed by a swim. 

This joy was broken a week before our departure when Johnson’s government announced that a new traffic light had been created – the amber-plus. The country on this list-of-one was France. This meant that upon returning to the UK from France, even though we are double-vaccinated, we would have to self-isolate for ten days and have to take PCR tests on days 2 and 8. The first government explanation was that France had a worrying rate of Beta variants of the virus and that these cases might not be protected by vaccines. It was soon pointed out in the press that France’s higher Beta rate is in the French islands of Reunion and Mayotte, thousands of miles away. Mainland France has a lower Beta variant rate than Sweden, Germany and Spain – all of those countries are on the normal amber list of this Alice-in-Wonderland trafficlight, and people returning from those countries would not have to quarantine.

Just before we left France, Johnson responded to the criticism by saying that actually it is the Delta variant that is the problem. What? The UK had at that point about 6 times the number of cases of people with the Delta variant than France. Some 97% of those cases were of people who were not vaccinated. So, why quarantine vaccinated people coming back from a country with a lower rate of cases than the UK? The French authorities were quick to point out the lack of logic and scientific evidence behind these new rules. Former PM Tony Blair also put the case forward in favour of double vaccinated people not needing to quarantine. But still, nothing changed.

Why France? Has it got to do with Brexit renegotiations? A bit of jealousy over France catching up with the UK on its vaccination rollout? Or is it a personality clash between Boris the buffoon and the humourless but statesmanlike Macron?

All of this seems so ridiculous. I knew that I wasn’t likely to be a medical threat to anyone, especially after the negative results of my lateral-flow test in France a couple of days before our departure. This test incidentally cost half of what it did in the UK and this time, I had to show the certificate at the EasyJet gate, along with proof that I had arranged for two PRC tests in the UK – the cheapest option we could find was the do-it-yourself at home variety for £82 per person for the set of two.

During my first quarantine in 2020, before vaccines, I understood the importance of staying in for two weeks and tracked the days on Facebook with pictures of my garden jogging path, my various projects, etc. This time, bitter and feeling every bit the political pawn… well, here’s my summary journal:

Day 1: We receive our first of many phone calls from the NHS checking up on us, asking that we understand the rules and that we understand if we break the rules we get fined. I resist using sarcasm.

Day 2: We take our PRC tests at home and put them in the pre-labelled packages. David leaves the house, breaking the law, in order to post the tests. We both receive NHS phone calls with the same texts read to us as in the previous day.

Day 3: I find myself reading a short story by Tessa Hadley in The New Yorker set during a Covid lockdown. Another set of NHS phone calls comes in. 

Day 4: David misses his NHS call. I take mine, noticing that all of the callers sound young – twenties, maybe thirties. I hear about a colleague who has returned from France and is receiving three phone calls per day.

Day 5: David receives his daily phone call, but I don’t. The UK government announces that from 2 August, people who are double vaccinated coming from the US, amber countries in the EU (that is, not France) and cruise ships – those petri dishes of disease – can enter the UK without having to self-isolate. I consider rereading Kafka.

Day 6: David receives a call, but again, I don’t. I start to hope that I’m off the radar. I read in The Times that anyone associated with London Fashion Week can fly to London without having to self-isolate. I feel I’m living in a joke that isn’t funny.

Day 7: UK Foreign Secretary Dominique Rabb explains that the issue over the island of Reunion having a high rate of Beta and not mainland France where people are travelling from  is immaterial. It’s not the distance between the little island and the mainland, it’s the accessibility the island has to mainland France. Clearly, Rabb hasn’t noticed all the times that Reunion has had lockdowns with no one travelling anywhere. Nor has Rabb considered the fact that rules for going to the Canary islands, which are owned by Spain, are different from the rules applied to mainland Spain. When I get my NHS call – I’m back on the radar – I request the short version of the script, explaining that the long version will just make me angry. The caller replies to my bitterness with a perky ‘Okay’ and jumps to the part about being fined.

Day 8: We take PCR test 2, David breaks the law again to post them, and we both receive phone calls from our young friends at the NHS. Simon Calder of The Independent confirms a rumour we have heard that turns out to be true – the island of Reunion with its high Beta rate is on the amber list, while mainland France with its miniscule Beta rate remains on the amber-plus list.

Day 9: David receives his daily call, but I don’t. The papers are full of stories about vaccine passes. In France, these passes are proving a success, before they even become law, millions more are queuing up for their vaccines. Those who refuse could still get into venues with a negative covid test, or they could simply take to the streets and protest – it’s what the French do. I’m missing France already.

Day 10: I start looking into a winter holiday in Reunion, and I finish this blog.

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