I flew home from Portugal hours before it turned amber – it was complete chaos

·5-min read
<p>‘Social distancing was impossible. There were hundreds of us crammed into a small space, waiting to drop our bags, centimetres apart’</p> (Victoria Richards)

‘Social distancing was impossible. There were hundreds of us crammed into a small space, waiting to drop our bags, centimetres apart’

(Victoria Richards)

I was on the beach in the Algarve with friends when I found out that Portugal was being moved from green to amber on the government’s travel list. If that seems somewhat “meta”, in the form of a Christopher Nolan film, well – it felt like it.

We messaged home in disbelief after the rumours first began to circulate online that our holiday was no longer deemed “safe” without the need for quarantine. We wondered what we would do; when we would get home; how we would do the school run. Our kids were waiting for our return – and so were our bosses. It’s no surprise that we were anxious for the inevitable announcement.

The collective tension was palpable. All around the beaches and hotel resorts, British people were shouting into their phones: nobody knew what it meant; only that if we turned amber it was going to mean 10 days of isolation on our return, and more pricey PCR tests to add to the already off-putting list of expenses. Not the end of the world, by any stretch – being cautious when there’s a global pandemic going on is paramount – but inconvenient, to say the least: for some, more than others.

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After the briefing I discovered that I wouldn’t be affected; that Portugal wouldn’t turn amber until 4am on Tuesday. Booked on a flight home on Sunday night, I could be back at my desk as usual at 7am Monday morning. Not so for my friends.

One, a year 3/4 teacher, was supposed to be in class teaching 30 students at her state primary school in Essex on Wednesday morning at 8.30am. Her school would need to find cover – and she was upset about the disruption to her students’ learning. “My school will have to find cover for my classes and all my students until I’m out of isolation,” she told me. “I’ll also have to pay extra to do a ‘test to release’ after five days to minimise the disruption to my school and to my class. It’ll be expensive for me, and disruptive to their education.”

Another was going to have to cancel a week’s worth of important face-to-face meetings. “I’d only just gotten used to doing them in person again,” she told me – she was also supposed to be flying home on Tuesday afternoon and taking her kids to school on Wednesday morning. “I’ll have to try and get someone else to do the school run while I isolate for 10 days,” she said. She was also gutted about missing a long-planned theatre trip with her children.

Some of the airlines scrambled to help their passengers – as it turned out, my friends were flying with British Airways, who put on extra flights and allowed them to change to a Monday return for free. But the stress was far from over.

For starters, there were the unforeseen costs – such as the near-doubling in price of a taxi to the airport. When I tried to book a car to take me to Faro I knew I should allow extra time – but didn’t realise I’d have to allow extra budget, as well. Uber appeared to have cottoned on to the Great British Scramble home and ramped up their standard €50 charge for a 40-minute drive from the coast to €97.

As I arrived at the airport, it was chaos: the queues outside for pop-up Covid testing (which I had done online) matching the queues inside. Lines of passengers with heavy bags stretched far beyond the signs pointing people in the direction of the check-in desks; the atmosphere buzzing with stress and anxiety. It was hot and stuffy, everyone looked sunburnt and irritable, children were wailing.

Social distancing was impossible. There were hundreds of us crammed into a small space, waiting to drop our bags, centimetres apart – let alone two metres. Many were wearing their face masks around their chins. People were being rushed through security; presumably made late for flights thanks to the lengthy queues. It was a truly Sartre-esque version of a relaxing trip home.

Once through security, where you had to show both your negative Covid test and your passenger locator form, there was no time to shop or buy a drink – timings were down to the wire. As I queued to board, staff were shouting for missing passengers, who may have been held up because of the crowds outside. Our plane was then grounded for an hour for unspecified “problems”: staff even started handing out cups of water. I had that sense that any moment, given the wrong interaction, a fight could break out. People were hot, stressed, tired, late – and thoroughly p*ssed off.

My trip to Portugal was supposed to be a five-day break with friends that had been booked – and then duly postponed – in January 2020. We pushed our flights twice: once (optimistically, as it turned out) to 1 June 2020, then again to 1 June 2021. I felt indescribably lucky when our destination was first put on the green list – I hadn’t thought we’d be able to go. And seeing the cost of flights rising stratospherically after the announcement sealed the deal: after all, we already had our trip in the bag.

It felt silly not to follow the government’s green light to go, especially when they allowed thousands of football fans to travel out there for the Champions League final. Now we see how foolish that was.

Still, we shouldn’t blame people for wanting (and seizing the opportunity to) get away. A holiday is a luxury, of course; nobody “needs” to travel abroad. But after what has been a truly terrible 15 months for everyone – in my small circle of friends alone, we’ve experienced grief, major surgery, job loss and ill health – I’d never felt like I needed a break more.

Was it worth it? I’d still say yes – any time spent away from your desk, in the company of good friends, in the sunshine, is good for the soul; despite the extra costs, the testing and the panic. But will I be trying to go abroad again any time soon? Not a chance. I’ve booked a few days in the Isle of Wight for the end of the summer, and will be watching sundown from Sandown, instead (as long as they don’t move us to amber).

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