Commentary: International travel COVID-19 style

Commentary: International travel COVID-19 style
Nicholas Pescod/CHEK News
Writer Beth Haysom says travelling by air to London was a pleasant experience amid COVID-19, though learning to eat with a face shield on was unexpected.

I had COVID collywobbles about travelling to the U.K. – fearful of virus-ridden airports and planes – not to mention 14 days of quarantine.

At age 70, I’m in the danger zone and wouldn’t have gone at all if I didn’t need to help my family – especially my 98-year-old mum, who is coping well with the pandemic but needs support for the next few months.

But so far the experience has been a whole lot better than I feared.

In fact, my journey from Victoria to London’s Heathrow Airport the other day was one of the best ever.

I think the early days of air travel must have been like this, quiet peaceful airports, friendly unstressed security staff, unhurried boarding, room to stretch out on the plane and nobody bothering you with carts of duty free and so on.

But you have to wonder though how long the airlines can survive with so few passengers. There was just a handful of us appreciating the smartly renovated departure lounge at Victoria’s airport.

Similarly, Vancouver International Airport was an eerie ghost town with most of the stores shuttered and more exotic fish swimming in their display tank than travellers passing through.

A plane normally filled with hundreds had just 50 people

Only about 50 of us boarded the flight to London, on a plane usually packed with 250 people.

“I can seat you anywhere you like, you have 200 spare seats to choose from,” the flight attendant told me when I had to move from one of the rows at the back.

They reserve the back area of the plane – including the bathrooms – for the flight attendants to have as a passenger free zone.

I spotted one of them relaxing there playing video games. And why not? After all, there wasn’t a whole lot else for them to do.

There is no hot meal service, but we did get supper – kale salad and a cold vegetarian moussaka – that was surprisingly tasty. A cart did come around with hot beverages and drinks, but only once at supper and again in the morning for hot coffee with our croissant and yogurt breakfast.

I could almost forget I was travelling mid pandemic except that everyone was wearing a mask and one of the flight attendants chose to wear white protective covering over her clothes. Along with the usual safety announcements, was a not-so-gentle reminder to wear our masks on board at all the time.

Failure to do so, we were told, would be reported and could lead to hefty fines.

I chose to wear a face shield too and my biggest challenge was remembering it was there. I kept bumping into it with my cup of tea. I decided to keep it on while taking off my face mask to eat.

Figuring out how to navigate my fork to my mouth underneath a plastic shield is a new skill set I never expected to learn.

With all this precaution I’d like to think I avoided being exposed to the virus. My temperature was taken before I boarded in Victoria but there were no checks when I got to Heathrow. It was busier there, but people were still keeping their distance on the long trek through the terminal on moving walkways and up and down escalators.

One good change is that people with Canadian passports are now allowed to use the automatic, unmanned border control gates, usually reserved for U.K. passport holders only. It’s much faster than the usual long snaky lineups for in-person border control. You just have to remember to take off your mask long enough for the camera to recognize you.

Before arriving in the U.K. everyone is required to fill out what is known as a Public Health Passenger Locator Form online.  It spells out where you’re going to quarantine and contact information and is attached to your passport number, so you don’t need to physically hand over the document when you arrive.

Just as well, I’d spilled water on mine and it was a bit soggy to read.

Quarantining in the U.K.

Ah quarantine, the word conjures visions of lonely isolation. I was rather dreading it until we found an Air BnB in the countryside close to my mother’s home.

Now, I’m happily tucked into a cosy, self-contained lodge equipped with wifi, television, lots of books, oh yes. I also did bring some knitting.

I’m not supposed to be leaving the premises but there is a glorious English country garden with a pond for me to go walkabout outside.

It’s a pleasant prison and though I miss being with my family, for a short time could easily retreat into a blissful, and hopefully, COVID-free world of my own.

Unfortunately, the television news brings me back to harsher realities with its litany of increasing cases across the U.K., the closure of major store chains like Edinburgh Woollen Mill and thousands of people being laid off, not to mention closing the bars and pubs in Scotland.

Mark Brown, who runs an airport taxi service and picked me up at Heathrow, usually has a team making at least 20 runs a week. Now it’s just him driving and he thinks he’s lucky if he gets two journeys.

“I’m barely hanging on, not sure what’s coming next, just hoping for the best,” he told me, only to say in typical British fashion that “it’s ok, we’ll get by somehow.”

In spite of everything, the undaunted U.K. spirit lives on.

This year’s Queen’s birthday honours reflect that by unusually recognizing many of the ordinary people who have gone
above and beyond to support their neighbours during the COVID-19 crisis.

Brown didn’t get one, at least not yet, but surely Anthony Roberts, director of the Colchester Arts Centre is deserving of an award.

Concerned about the lack of performing arts, every day since lockdown he has publicly recited a poem and now he’s up to 205

So I may be marooned in the U.K. thousands of miles from home until next Spring but, as the Annie song says, “I think I’m going to like it here.”

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Beth Haysom, a retired journalist and kayak guide, usually lives in Saanichton. She runs a Kayak Friendly website, paddles when she can and loves spending time with family especially her four grandchildren and three grand dogs.

Inside an empty plane to London. (Beth Haysom)

Beth HaysomBeth Haysom

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