Monday, May 20, 2024
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Travel hell in the time of Covid


I FEEL compelled to share our recent horrendous ordeal as we tried to beat the outrageous and untimely deadline set when Portugal was suddenly taken off the UK’s ‘green’ list for international travel. 

Half of our immediate family, including young grandchildren, live in the Alentejo region of southern Portugal. We last visited in October 2020, flying from Bournemouth to Faro on Ryanair as we have done on many occasions in the past.  As the UK government banned international travel until May 17, 2021, whilst still in lockdown we booked flights for that exact day, so excited at the prospect of seeing our precious grandchildren again after seven long months. However as that date approached and with the government changing international travel rulings at every twitch and turn, Ryanair were forced to cancel our flights, unable to fill a plane from a regional airport due to passenger uncertainty. Determined still to travel and reckoning that flights from capital cities were less likely to be cancelled, we booked new flights with British Airways, Heathrow to Lisbon, departing Tuesday May 18 and returning Tuesday June 8. Meanwhile my husband and I had AstraZeneca Covid jabs since Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock had repeatedly assured us that this would ensure our ticket to freedom.

Despite being fully vaccinated before the date of our departure, we were still required to have a PCR test 72 hours before our departure.  We had it done at Boots in Dorchester for the princely sum of £99 each for a two-minute test; needless to say the results were negative. Portugal was on the UK’s ‘green’ list. Marvellous, we thought, what could possibly go wrong? And off we went.

On June 3, Portugal was suddenly removed from the green list, despite the government’s prior assurances that countries would be put on ‘watch lists’, thereby giving warning time for travellers to return. As the new ruling came into force at 4am on Tuesday 8 June, those of us in Portugal were given just four days. I read that 109,000 UK tourists had visited Portugal since May 17, so you can imagine the chaos that ensued as people struggled to change flights in order to avoid ‘amber’ status, thus having to quarantine on return to the UK plus the cost of a further two or three tests.

As we were due to travel back from Lisbon on Tuesday June 8 (a few hours after the 4am deadline), we had our test already booked at a clinic en route to Lisbon. Once again, the result was negative. However, to avoid quarantine we needed to bring our flights forward. British Airways said that we could change flights at no extra charge and that they were laying on extra flights, so we decided to remain with the same carrier.

We went on to the British Airways website to find four flights from Lisbon to Heathrow on Monday June 7, but two were full and the other two were via Madrid (Spain already amber), taking 12 hours, so no use to us. After much searching for British Airways options, we found a flight from Faro to London City airport for £666/one way/2 persons. We clicked the ‘change flights’ button on the website but because the departure airport was different, it would not accept the changes. We were therefore forced to buy new flights and then apply for a refund. We went online to cancel our original Lisbon/LHR flight and apply for the refund but the website was obviously overloaded and inaccessible so my husband phoned. He was told that the only refund they could give was £25, or a voucher, and by the way, as we had phoned and not done it online, there was a charge of £50. We accepted the voucher but are unlikely to use it.

So to the airport – we’d heard from a friend who had flown on Sunday June 6 that it was chaotic at Faro airport so we should allow four hours to check in, which we fortunately did. We’d had to make special arrangements to drop off the hire car in Faro as well, as that had been due in Lisbon but the Portuguese hire car company were delightful, and there was no extra charge. With our negative tests on our phones, we went to the BA desk to check in. They looked at the test and then informed us that as it was in Portuguese, they could not accept it. On my questioning, the girl said that BA accepted tests in English and two other languages, but not Portuguese. What are British Airways thinking of? We are talking about two words here, ‘Nao detetado’. Unable to check in without a negative test result, the only option was to have another test in the airport clinic for another £60 each.

Let’s move on to the completion of our Passenger Locator forms, also obligatory before being able to check in or board a flight. We needed to sign up for yet another test, to be administered on Day 2 of our return, only by one of several government ‘approved’ clinics on the UK government website. These were listed in cost order from about £45 to £180 per test. Data on the first two clinics wouldn’t load so click on clinic 3, sign up, hand over credit card details to the tune of £120 and await confirmation email and the all-important verification code, needed for the passenger locator form. Receive email but verification code is not recognised by the form, which throws us out several times, requiring us to start from scratch again. Show phone to airline staff to prove that we have actually signed and paid up for a Day 2 test but no, they wouldn’t accept that and we must buy another test from another clinic. All the while, time is ticking by and boarding gates have been called. Click on another clinic, pay up once again, another £112, and finally a verification code that was accepted. Alleluia, I thought, we’re there!  But not quite . . . my negative test results came through on my phone but not my husband’s, requiring him to run back to the clinic to obtain his results which they had forgotten to send through. Tearful and exhausted, we completed all the necessary documentation, were hustled through security on to the plane without a boarding pass or seat number but, with minutes to spare, we made it. When I asked at the BA desk how people without smartphones would cope, the answer was that they simply cannot fly. A distraught lady in front of us in the BA queue had been booked on EasyJet on the previous day, Sunday June 6, and so many of them were trying to check in that the entire WiFi system at Faro airport went down and she believed 400 of them, and she was one of them, had lost their flights and were trying to rebook – thanks, UK government.

As we landed at London City airport, the pilot informed us that we should have our passenger locator forms on our phones to hand as we would need to show them at Passport Control. We duly handed over our passports but were told the forms were unnecessary as they ‘already knew everything about us’.  Big Brother is watching – surveillance of our every move is complete.

I cannot emphasise enough how stressful (and costly) this episode has been. Clearly every attempt is being made to prevent us from flying with these incomprehensible travel restrictions, imposed by this corrupt, deceitful and risk-averse government, turning the UK into an insular nation, closed for business globally. And the irony of it all, never once during this tortuous journey were we asked if we had been vaccinated.

Will we endure it again? Yes definitely – there is no way I would admit defeat to this awful, increasingly authoritarian regime, and beyond all this we have our family and nothing and no one can take them away from us.  Maybe a one-way ticket is the answer?

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