At times on the A1 and A16 motorways in northern France on Friday afternoon, four out of five cars had UK plates: SUVs, estates and vans laden with luggage and children and piled high with surfboards and bikes, Brits barrelling back in a desperate bid to make it home before the 4am quarantine deadline.
And they were not happy. “Twenty-four hours, a lot of miles, a lot of stress and a lot of money down the drain,” said Michelle Lawfull. “Don’t get me started on this government. It’s not printable.”
Standing by their campervan in a service station car park halfway between Paris and Calais, the Lawfull family – Michelle, 46, her husband Mark, 47, Henry, 14, Mae, 12, and Ava, 9, plus dog, from Chingford – surveyed the wreckage of their summer break in France.
“We took a risk, arrived yesterday,” said Michelle, who works in a yoga studio. “Made it as far as a hotel in Tours last night, saw the news and booked a ferry straight back today. That was £160. But we were so stressed we booked for a car, not a van. So now we’ve just spent another £350 on the shuttle. The whole thing’s been a disaster.”
Under a heavy grey sky, battered by the occasional torrential downpour, other families were equally upset. “Why the hell couldn’t they at least have given us until Monday, to spread us out a bit, so we didn’t have this insane stampede?” asked Felicity Bradshaw, 34. The recruitment consultant was returning from Brittany and said her company had told staff any quarantine period would have to be taken as unpaid leave. “I can’t afford that,” she said flatly. “So I’ve cut my holiday short by five days. Thanks a lot, guys.”
On the other side of the Channel, as the news sank in it felt like a declaration for many travellers that summer was over before it had even begun.
At the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras in London, a few hardy souls in Disney gear cheered up the chasm where the passengers were supposed to be. (“You don’t feel good about your job prospects when you see this sort of turnout,” fretted one member of staff.)
Trisha Hansen was one of those who had decided to go anyway, taking her granddaughter Lacey to Disneyland. “It is what it is,” said Hansen, who was sporting a Mickey Mouse face mask. “You can’t let the children down. We were gutted when we heard the news. But you’ve just got to make the most of it. Fourteen days is not the end of the world.”
The news had broken so late that not every traveller was aware of it. “What did you say? Oh no, no…” said Sonata Kralikaite, who was about to check in for a few nights in Paris with her mother. “We will maybe change our plans. We still have an hour and a half before our train. Oh God!” She threw back her head and laughed. “We’ll have a chat, a very serious chat.” Approached during a huddled conference twenty minutes later, the pair said ruefully that they had decided to rebook for Christmas.
Those on their way home were, at least, spared that dilemma. The first train to arrive from Paris on Friday was not full, according to those who did make it – even as they nursed exhaustion and a serious financial hit. Carina Ignatiuc, who had been with her two children in Paris staying with her mother and was due to be there until the 21 August, was one of the few who got the news in time to book seats on the 07.43 from Gare Du Nord – having no choice but to return for family reasons, she said.
“I saw it online at about half eleven [on Thursday night],” she said. “And Eurostar just immediately changed the prices – within minutes. They were £80, then I looked a few minutes later and it was £160, and then £290 a few minutes after that.”
Ignatiuc, whose children cheerfully clambered over the luggage trolley as she spoke, said she was “exhausted”.
“I started packing at about one o’clock, and then I had to get the kids up at five, and they had no idea what was going on… I was like, ‘hi girls! We’re going to the train!’”
A Eurostar spokesperson said the spike in cost was simply “down to demand, and that’s how our pricing always works.” And it wasn’t just train passengers who had to dig deep. By Friday afternoon, British Airways economy flights from Charles De Gaulle to Heathrow were going for as much as £450.
Emeline, a lawyer, was one of those who bit the bullet and flew back, landing from Marseille on Friday morning. She was just starting a reunion break with her much-missed French parents and sister.
“It’s been six months since I caught up with anyone, it was a big thing, I was really excited,” she said. “I arrived at 10am, we got to the house, I was so happy. And then we figured this out at 1am, and I was leaving on the 10:55am plane.” She and her mum both cried when they worked out that she had little choice but to return. “A 24-hour holiday – for me, that’s a record.” It was a record that came with an extra £355 price tag.
Back in a crowded Calais car park, passengers were frantically scrolling through departure times in search of their own chance to squeeze inside the ever-approaching deadline. Bernard Wimmer, 34, an estate worker in Scotland, had been to Germany to collect a new dog and left Bremen before 5am.
“I didn’t hear about the quarantine until first thing this morning,” he said. “I booked the Shuttle straight away, but it seems the booking never went through. So I’m having to try again – but look … Half, more than half the crossings are sold out now. And the ticket’s now £260.”
Those with the golden tickets and those without did, at least, have one thing in common: their disbelief at the process that had got them here. Amanda Smith, 28, and her partner James Brown, 30, both in digital marketing, were on their way back from a month-long road trip, on the ferry they had fortuitously booked at the beginning of the week.
“But only because my mum called us up and told us to,” said Amanda. “We’d switched off totally from the news and had no idea. We both lost our jobs during the lockdown, but picked up some freelance work and decided to take off and do it on the road. We had a great time. But this is really a shambles.”