I had returned to the UK on a nearly empty flight for Christmas after not seeing England or my family for 2 years. It hadn’t been difficult or expensive, prices and procedures only slightly higher than during normal times. The requirement to isolate at home on arrival was only applicable to those who could not prove they had been double vaccinated. I had been vaccinated with 2 shots of Sinovax and had the certificate, but as it was from China, it was not recognised by the UK government. It was Ironic having to quarantine in a country reporting 100,000 cases a day after arriving from a city which hadn’t had a single case for 12 days. Myself and the others on the same flight were probably the least likely to be infected persons in the country. I filled in the health declaration truthfully and it was checked before boarding the flight when I transferred in Brussels for London. I wondered if I hadn’t declared that I needed to quarantine if anyone would have noticed the certificate problem. At Heathrow I was surprised there were no checks and I entered through the e-channel as normal and got a taxi home.
I did my 10 days quarantine in my unfurnished apartment, spending my time ordering furniture and then assembling it as it arrived. I sneaked out a few times, to get a bank statement for proof of address, to buy a UK sim card for my phone, some cutlery, a cup and kettle, screwdrivers and to post my 2 self-swabbed throat tests. I worked from home and booked two recognised covid vaccines so in future I could travel. I was working from home too, so I was busy and the 10 days passed quickly.
During my isolation period I had 1 visit from an NHS volunteer to check I was home and that my day 2 self-test of nose and throat swab had been done. He stayed outside with his clipboard at a safe distance and didn’t ask to see any evidence, my word was enough. After my day 2 and day 8 tests came back negative, I was free to spend the last few days Christmas shopping before the family get-together Christmas eve.
I was careful in the lead up to Christmas eve.. I wore a mask when I went out and avoided crowded places. My daughter has asthma and my 85-year-old sister is frail and has Alzheimer’s. I didn’t want to give them Covid for Christmas. Nether-the-less, after 2 days with my family, I returned home feeling very tired. I thought I might have overdone the rich food and copious drinks on top of the jet lag. Then family members tested positive, saying they’d probably picked it up from work colleagues before Christmas. The number of cases were booming and I couldn’t get a test kit to confirm if I had been infected too.
After new year, covid restrictions were increasingly relaxed. It was thought the majority of people had had the virus at least once, the new Omicron strain was less severe and death rates were falling close to normal winter levels. By February people stopped wearing masks, some returned to working in the office, later the requirement to isolate after testing positive ended. On the last weekend before returning to China I met again with my family and talk was of future holidays with plans for next Christmas at Disneyland. Life was finally returning to normal, the future looking more certain.
For the last year, life in China had been more consistently normal than in the UK. There had been temperature checks and mask wearing in busy areas but otherwise, bars and clubs and restaurants had been business as usual. Now, as I returned the situation had reversed. The zero cases policy requires a constant surveillance of health and strict containment rules whenever cases and possible contact with cases have occurred. People returning from abroad were a high risk of importing the virus.
There were still no direct flights from the UK to China and tickets were at least 4 times the price of a return before the pandemic. I was booked onto a flight via Copenhagen for 1st March, 5 days after my second Astro Zenica jab. I had to get a pre flight double negative test from a Chinese embassy approved provider. The only provider listed for the South of England was surprisingly a Traditional Chinese Medicine shop in London’s Chinatown. The test was a steep £240.
The test certificates were received the next day and I attached them to an on-line health declaration form together with pictures of my passport, visa, Chinese vaccine certificates and a record of the last 7 day’s temperature checks. The latter form I only found out about on the morning of the flight as it was neither mentioned in the guidance nor on the health declaration. Only JPEG files were accepted, so the certificates had to be printed out in the library, photographed and uploaded. I finally got the approval and required QR code later that afternoon.
At Copenhagen airport I was told I would need another Covid test. This time not just the nose and throat but also a blood test for antibodies. They advised that if I had had corona virus or a European vaccine the blood test would return positive and I’d not be allowed to fly. A third test was recommended to avoid this. I’ve never liked the nose swab and this time the nurse delved deep, I asked if it was a nose or brain swab. The total cost at over £500 was as eye watering as the procedure.
The results would be available later at the gate, so I still had a few hours for lunch before the next round of health declaration form filling was required. I was allowed out through security to where the restaurants and shops were and idled for a couple of hours before returning. An hour before take-off the first set of results arrived. The passengers, a few in full decontamination suits, crowded round while a Chinese member of staff called names and handed the certificates out like graded homework. There were a handful of foreigners and none of us seemed to be included in the first batch of results. We were told a screen shot of the first QR code should be attached to the new Declaration as this would speed up the approval process.
My results arrived last. 2 brightly coloured certificates, one of which showed I’d tested positive. I asked what it meant and was answered with a blank look. People were boarding now and the few of us that remained were frantically hunched over the phone app, screwing our eyes up to make out the tiny print, taking photographs of the new certificates and uploading them. My answer came back quickly – denied! By this time the airport staff were starting to panic. I was the only remaining passenger. The plane was due to take off and removing my luggage at this time was enough of a problem for them to start helping me. The issue, apparently, was I hadn’t uploaded a new form, ‘very important’ the Chinese lady told me. If its so important, I thought, how come no one gave me the form before. It asked about my vaccines and symptoms, the same information as already submitted. I completed it, photographed it and added it to the app. The staff knew it was approved even before my QR code updated and asked me to hurry onto the plane.
I noticed we flew south over Poland and Hungary then across the Black Sea avoiding the Ukraine and Russian airspace. The flight was uneventful but felt long. By the time we touched down in Shanghai I’d been travelling, mostly sitting around or standing in queues, for 21 hours. Ahead was more waiting, a form to fill in, another round of deep nose and throat tests, another app to complete with the same information, a new QR code to obtain and then wait in groups to load onto a bus for the quarantine hotel. The airport had been carefully divided to keep passengers arriving from abroad separate.
With all the details submitted, the passenger list and the hours spent processing us through the segregated terminal you would expect the transfer to the hotel to be straight forward. I didn’t expect the coach to crawl around the city trying to find somewhere to house us. Six and a half hours after landing we were finally able to check in to a hotel – 3 people at a time. I was passed a set of rules in Chinese and some tablets which they said were for the toilet. My suitcases were sprayed and wiped down with disinfectant by a gang in protective suits, gloves and a face shield. It felt more like a red cross tent than a hotel reception. I was accompanied to my room in an elevator whose once polished steel sides were now etched with corroded streaks from the disinfectant. On the 6th floor corridor another suited worker was waiting to spray the bleached floor and walls behind us.
The room was surprisingly good; clean, bright, a comfortable double bed, desk and lamp, a kettle and fierce hot shower. There was a crate of bottled water and a sack of toilet rolls, paper cups and rubbish bags labelled as ‘Infectious medical waste.’
I unpacked a few clothes, my laptop and the soap bag, trying to make it a little homely. I have 14 days of incarceration in here; A little longer than the 10 I easily completed before, it wouldn’t be too bad I thought.