I’ve always thought the ‘last flight out’ was reserved for truly grave situations abroad – or an apocalypse film starring Will Smith or Brad Pitt. Yet somehow I unknowingly found myself on one – or one of the last – yesterday, flying from Malaga back to Heathrow Airport.
I can’t say the re-instated quarantine rules for Spain came as a total shock. As the number of Covid cases started to surge in Catalonia predominately, but along the coast as well, I’d been keeping tabs on the local press. I didn’t follow along too closely – partially because it was out of my hands but also because The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett is very hard to put down. I sensed a shift was coming though, not necessarily from Spain but from the devolved regions in the UK, as the numbers ticked up each day.
Given the UK’s previous pace for Covid changes (a month-long process into travel quarantines and advanced warning for mandatory face masks), I assumed there’d be at least a week between any changes announced and their implementation. Not so. Whilst picking up my suitcase from baggage claim, the texts started rolling in, asking about my whereabouts and the time of my flight. Sometime between the runway and arrivals, news had broken that anyone arriving back from Spain from midnight onwards would be required to take part in a 14-day quarantine. I’d made it back, with a few hours to spare.
Thinking about my own luck quickly shifted to thinking of the thousands of very unlucky people desperately trying to cancel their summer holidays. Worse-off still were those mid-holiday, having a lovely time and suddenly burdened with the news that their return just became infinitely more complicated.
The UK’s quick and decisive move makes sense from a political perspective: having been criticised for months for moving too slowly – into lockdown, out of lockdown, into travel quarantines, out of them, etc – the government was not going to take the risk of importing new Covid cases from abroad. But having travelled from and to Britain, I can’t help but wonder if the immediate policy change is really about the threat Spain poses (the surge in cases is thought to be a result of large groups of young people gathering in specific areas of the country) or about Britain’s continued struggles to track and trace cases.
Covid measures in Spain (those I experienced anyway) are quite impressive. We filled out a comprehensive survey before departing – asking about any symptoms and previous travel – which gave you a QR code, easily scanned upon arrival. Temperature checks at border control were administered by medical professionals, so quick and easy that only a slight resemblance of a queue formed. It inspired far more confidence than my trip home yesterday, where we were told to Google the gov.uk form you need to fill in to return (a confusing form which does not properly distinguish between residents, tourists, or those coming from quarantine-exempt countries). There was no temperature check, and only spot checks to make sure the form had been completed by travellers.
We may need to begrudgingly accept that in the coming months – I shudder to say years – as we try to return to some kind of normality, we will be inconvenienced more often than not: holidays cancelled, unforeseen quarantines and local shutdowns turning the freedom taps on and off. But while some will say ‘it’s just a holiday’, the implications of this shift are huge. The threat of an unexpected two-week quarantine will be enough to put many holiday dreamers off travelling abroad (I would not have gone to Spain if I thought I’d be apartment-bound at the end of the trip). It’s not just the inconvenience of it – work and parenting responsibilities make it near impossible for some to take an additional two weeks out, especially in the context of a holiday, rather than showing Covid symptoms or having come into contact with the virus. Confidence in our ability to travel again has taken a huge knock, doing no favours for our collapsed economy. This will be felt intensely by tourist, travel and hospitality industries, which have already been disproportionally hit by the Covid crisis.
I’m not convinced there’s a big risk difference between myself and someone arriving back from Malaga at 00.01 this morning. That’s to say, the risk of myself and the untimely passenger having contracted the virus is still very low – I just lucked out. So how am I celebrating my small lottery win? Not worried myself, but aware that others around me might be, I have a date with a q-tip tomorrow, which I’m informed will be unpleasantly shoved up my nose to confirm I’m no super-spreader. It feels like the right thing to do – no sledgehammer policy needed.