On June 3, I left the UK for Egypt. I hadn’t been back to my home country since before the pandemic and hadn’t since seen two of my four children. I could not avoid the trip: my daughter was getting married and another daughter and son were getting engaged.
Before I booked my trip, I made sure I was going to be double vaccinated first. I wanted the protection, as I had insider information that Egyptians weren’t nearly as strict about COVID-19 as most Brits were. I also told my children that I would not be able to participate in their events unless they were held outdoors and the numbers were kept to a minimum. Since I have the best children in the world, they obliged and were very kind and respectful of my concerns.
The day I left the UK, Egypt was on the amber list. That was the same day a review of the green, amber and red lists was to be announced. There wasn’t even the slightest rumour about Egypt getting changed, although there had been a couple of low profile news stories about a new variant appearing in Thailand that had allegedly originated in Egypt.
As soon as I landed I got the news: Egypt was now on the UK’s red list and I’d have to enter a hotel quarantine upon my return.
I can’t say I was disappointed. I’m a firm believer in the importance of hotel quarantines for people arriving from certain countries. I know that many people aren’t as strict as they should probably be about home quarantines. And I know that it’s almost impossible to enforce their strict observance 24/7 for ten days. I also think that it’s important to limit travel from countries that aren’t taking COVID-19 restrictions seriously. In the UK, we’ve been through hell and back to reduce the numbers of cases and deaths to what it is now. We should have been stricter with incoming travel all along. Later, though, is better than never.
Fortunately, my travel insurance company informed me that they would cover the cost of my hotel quarantine, since I travelled to Egypt before it was placed on the red list. That was a huge financial relief.
As my trip back to the UK came closer, I began the necessary procedures. I booked my place in a quarantine hotel through the system provided by the British government via a private company that is in charge of this side of things. You don’t get to choose the hotel you stay in. The issue with this is that, according to posts in a Facebook group for people quarantining in UK hotels, the standard of service at these hotels varies widely. Some people have posted horror stories about their hotel stays. Assigned hotels have also been changed last minute. So it appears that you never REALLY know which hotel you’re staying in until you actually get there. It also appears that families are finding it very difficult to get guaranteed reservations for the date of their arrival. Some have said their hotel allocation was assigned only hours before their departure time. Some have even had to change their flight dates when informed that hotel accommodation could not be booked for those dates.
I was one of the lucky ones. I filled in the online form and immediately received confirmation that I’d be staying at one of the Radisson hotels near Heathrow.
I then booked my PCR test and to my relief it came back negative. Finally, I filled in my passenger locator form 48 hours before departure.
There were so many factors at play just to get myself onto that flight back home to the UK. I needed to keep myself safe and not catch COVID. I needed to get a hotel booking. I needed my flight not to be cancelled if, for example, not enough people were travelling due to the circumstances. And I needed all my paperwork to be accepted by airport authorities.
It all worked out and I boarded my flight home. There weren’t many people on it. I actually counted heads on my way back from the toilet. There were probably about 30 people on that flight. I wonder how long EgyptAir will be able to keep regular flights going if that continues.
Since there were so few people on the plane, social distancing was easy and the trip was comfortable.
The real adventure began once we landed.
The situation at passport control was far from ideal. People from my flight joined people from other red list countries into a crowded, non-socially-distanced space in Terminal 3 at London Heathrow Airpor, which was set up specifically to handle people from these countries so they wouldn’t mix with people from others. The queue was excruciatingly slow for most of the 90 minutes it took me to get through it. For the first hour, there were only a small number of passport control officials working through what I estimate must have been something like 300 passengers. Every person has to show their passport and passenger locator documentation before being allowed through. This takes time. In that amount of time and in that crowded space, any one of us could have contracted COVID from someone else. The fact that we all have negative PCR results from three days ago does not give me confidence that we were all actually COVID free. We could have contracted it in the time between our test and arriving into the UK. Also, there’s no way to know that everyone’s test is 100% credible and legitimate.
After about an hour of standing in the queue, more passport control officials were added and the queue began to move more quickly. I was relieved to get out of that place.
I was then sent to get my suitcase, but first I had to sign in with the company organizing our hotel stays. A lady reviewed my documentation and gave me a little piece of paper with my hotel name and a number. I then went to collect my suitcase and stand in another queue inside the baggage area to wait to be guided onto a shuttle bus.
There were A LOT of busses out there. Yellow-vested individuals looked at my little piece of paper and directed me to a bus. The first few rows behind the driver were empty, probably to protect him from all us red-listed people. But every row after that was either full or almost full. And I ended up staying in that bus for another 90 minutes.
The bus went from one hotel to another, offloading people. We had to stop for quite some time at each hotel while passports were reviewed at the reception before people were allowed off. At one point the bus driver was asked by a hotel clerk to turn the bus off because it was making too much noise. That meant we had no ventilation. It got stuffier than it already had been. Osama, another Egyptian on the bus with me, spoke with the driver and explained that it was important that we had ventilation on this crowded and unsafe bus. Fortunately, the driver obliged.
The lady who gave me my little piece of paper made an unfortunate-for-me mistake. There are two Radisson hotels near Heathrow Airport. She wrote down that I was staying at Radisson Blu, while it turns out I was actually supposed to go to Radisson Red. This led to a further delay in getting me to my hotel, which also held up other people on the bus while this mistake was being figured out.
Things got better as soon as I arrived at my hotel. The staff were efficient and kind. I got through the necessary paperwork, chose my meals for the next ten days, and was taken to my room.
The walk to my room was a bit surreal. There were several security guards on my floor (and many in the lobby) speaking with each other on walkie talkies.
My room door wouldn’t open due to an issue with the batteries, but this was resolved quickly.
I was in! The room is small but clean and comfortable. We’re given cutlery to use for the meals we’re given in paper bags that are left outside our hotel door three times a day. They’ve given me detergent and a sponge to wash them up. I’ll be given clean linen and towels every three days that I need to change myself. No one is allowed in my room. I’ll be cleaning it myself. This is not a problem. I have a television and a decent wireless connection. The meals I’ve been given have been good so far. I’ve also had groceries delivered to me from the supermarket so I can have fresh fruit, salad, and my very necessary morning porridge with golden yellow sultanas and lactose-free milk. The small fridge is large enough for my limited needs.
We’re also officially allowed two 20-minute sessions outdoors for fresh air. We can take a third session if it’s an emergency, I’m told. This is a bizarre experience. I tested it out very early this morning.
To leave my room for exercise, I have to call a number and ask for someone to come up and get me. It might take awhile for that to happen if I want to go out at a peak time, when others also want to be out. I’m guessing that’s to make sure they control the number of people that are allowed out at the same time.
A security guard knocks on my door, walks me down the corridor, takes me in the elevator, walks me out the hotel door, and stands there while I do my exercise. Once done, he takes me all the way back to my room. The exercise is done in a small car park. A circuit around the car park is 180 meters long, or so I’m told by my GPS watch. Since I was out at 5:30AM, I was the only one in the car park. I ran intervals round and round for just under 40 minutes, did my stretches and went obediently back up into my room. Hopefully this means I can have longer periods outdoors than the officially allocated 20 minutes. I’m planning a second walk around the car park perimeter later on tonight.
I received a call from the reception today, asking if all was going well and if I needed anything or had any questions. That was nice of them. I asked for a better chair for my desk, as the one I had wasn’t ideal for sitting in for hours on end to work. They sent me an alternative, which is only slightly better. But I appreciated their help. I even got earl grey teabags to replace the English breakfast tea ones I had in my room.
So things are ok for now.
It’s all quite the adventure. It’s interesting to see first hand how it’s all being implemented in practice. The journalist in me feels like I’m reporting from the frontlines!
As I said, I’m a proponent of the idea of hotel quarantines, but I can already see that some serious changes need to be made, and I’m one of the lucky ones. I got one of the better hotels and I haven’t had to sit in a crowded bus for five hours or in an even more crowded border control area with around 3,000 people, like some have reported on that Facebook group.
Next up: going on my evening exercise around the car park perimeter and then watching the first episode of Love Island!
Life is looking good!