“We had to queue for two and half hours before we could enter the UK,” says Johnno, a filmmaker who has just landed in Heathrow from the South of France. “We did our PCR tests, and then the joke is that they get everyone to stand in a massive room and breathe on each other for hours. They do separate amber and green from red passengers, but only with different queues — you’re standing right next to them.”
It’s been 11 days since restrictions were eased to allow people to travel abroad for anything other than emergencies, and with half term imminent and sunny countries such as Portugal on the green list, hundreds of thousands of people are predicted to take their first opportunity to fly out from Heathrow next week. So far, so hopeful: Heathrow’s Chief Operating Officer Emma Gilthorpe tells me that “there’s a real buzz starting to return to our terminals”.
And yet rumours run rife of a potential Covid cauldron brewing at the airport. Heathrow is next to Hounslow, where the Indian variant is spreading more quickly and 11,000 residents have jobs linked directly to the terminals.
This week MP Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, condemned the arrangements at the airport as “irresponsible”. “If you have people waiting for long periods of time in a not brilliantly ventilated arrivals hall, often standing very close to each other, well that’s a super-spreading risk,” she said.
The Government has advised the people of Hounslow to take extra precautions — though they have not specified how — and Heathrow top brass insist they have “introduced an array of safety measures to ensure we protect our passengers and colleagues”.
All around the airport are signs intended to keep you safe, and there’s lots of cleaning going on, as staff mill around wiping the mostly empty seats, many of which have placards on them instructing you to keep socially distanced.
Meanwhile at arrivals, lots of people coming from amber list countries have cabs waiting, or just board the Tube, which raises questions about mixing with others before isolation — though it is important to remember everyone who comes through should have tested negative before boarding their flight.
Heathrow says it has a plan to moderate that risk. “We hope to open a dedicated arrivals facility at the airport for red list passengers arriving on direct flights,” says Gilthorpe. Apparently, it means Terminal 3 will be opened solely to red list arrivals from June 1. But the messaging from the Government is inconsistent. The traffic light system has created confusion, with most assuming green means go, amber means go carefully, and red means no. Chris Healy told me she travelled to Marbella on Monday, believing holidays were permitted.
We did our PCR tests, then we had to wait in a queue for two and a half hours, with red passengers in the queue next to us
“Only after I booked did Boris make it clear that amber didn’t mean we could go on holiday,” she says. “I’d thought amber meant we had to be extra careful — which I was fully prepared to be — and having had the double vaccine was also a factor in my decision. When I flew here it was just over three weeks since I’d had my second vaccine so antibodies should be at a good level. I’m sitting beside the beach now, waves crashing just 20 yards away, enjoying a glass of chilled rose.”
Healy has booked and paid £250 for three PCR tests in the UK when she returns, so that she can end her isolation after five days if the test is negative. She is also having a €50 test in Spain before she flies home. “I feel lucky to be able to do this but getting your head round precisely what you have to do is a little stressful — I still have to complete an online Passenger Locator Form 48 hours before I fly back — but I think that’s the last hurdle.
“I should add that I don’t think there are any other Brits here at the Marriott this week (it’s quiet, with only 30 per cent occupancy) — everyone else is from Germany, Belgium and Switzerland. They expect more from the UK next week though.”
At Heathrow, one woman has been caught out by the testing system. Angela is wearing a summery red jumpsuit but she’s about to go back home and put her jumper on, as the late arrival of her (negative) test results means she and her husband John have missed their flight to Gran Canaria in Spain, via Portugal. “Our test results didn’t come through in time,” she says. “They were negative, but by the time they’d emailed them to us our flight was gone. We won’t get a refund, as after all, we missed it.” Her husband John tells me they have rebooked for Friday, “we’re ‘two jabbers’ anyway so we won’t catch it between now and then!” he says.
It all goes to show that for many people following so many months locked in at home, if there is any way they can travel abroad, they will.