David Brain flew to the UK, got his first jab, flew home and tested positive. Writing from Jet Park, he explains what it’s like to travel, unvaccinated, in the Covid era.
At the beginning of the computer game Fortnite, contestants jump out of a flying battle bus and float down to an island where anyone they come across will try to kill them. This is how it feels as an unvaccinated person from New Zealand flying into the UK.
I am an experienced traveller. My last proper job involved regular visits to the United States, South Africa, the Middle East, India, China, Korea and all over Southeast Asia each year and so traversing airports and juggling flight schedules was my superpower. But travelling in the era of Covid from New Zealand is some fresh hell, but one I needed to brave to see family.
The stress starts early with the lottery of applying for MIQ vouchers. Beginners’ luck minimised this for me but some of the personal horror stories of families split up and lives disrupted are there to see on a host of Facebook groups.
Then flights booked and paid for within 48 hours to secure that golden MIQ ticket, Covid test taken and returned within 72 hours of flying, UK Visa completed (even though I’m a UK citizen) and all this printed multiple times to be ready to present at each step of the way. Small stuff, but underlying the new bureaucracy was a growing and existential fear that I am flying into something potentially life threatening for someone middle aged and who, like 99% of New Zealanders, has had the luxury of not really having to confront Covid’s mortal threat.
Heathrow was as quiet as I have ever seen it due to fewer flights’ arrivals, but because of all this new paperwork, immigration was a scrum and as far as I could tell, there was no segregation of flights and there I was in the middle of one of those snaking line systems and everyone was definitely trying to kill me.
I escaped upstairs to Terminal 2 medical centre for my arrival Covid test and downloaded the NHS app. The UK government insists you test on entry.
I hire a car to avoid public transport and a few hours later I arrive at the family home where I relate my narrow escape to be greeted with gales of laughter from battle-hardened veterans of the Covid wars, who have faced much worse for much longer. “Easy to say when you’re double vaccinated” is my best retort.
So the next day, brandishing my precious NHS number, I visit a pop-up vaccination centre where they jab me and instantly I am bulletproof. The psychological effect of getting vaccinated saw me walk out of that facility like the final scene of Usual Suspects where Keyser Söze transforms from hunched over into man about town in about three strides. Proper euphoria.
I could now join most of the rest of the UK and shrug at Covid and indulge in the idea that this was just something we all need to “live with” and “let’s get on with it”.
As I was to learn, it is much better to do this when you are double vaccinated. And in any case, the Fortnite vibe was stronger than the Keyser Söze one, so after my initial euphoria I was still very careful.
What does “careful” mean in the UK? Face mask on at all times in public buildings unless eating or drinking (and then on again if you get up to go to the loo). In London, no Tube journeys, just black cabs – which have the added benefit of the perspex screen between me and the driver, as well as masks. No meetings with anyone who isn’t double vaccinated. Constant hand sanitising. No pubs, clubs or England football matches.
The return trip involved the same testing and paperwork in reverse, but this time the existential threat was not Covid but MIQ, a prospect I had successfully put to the very back of my mind during the trip. Two weeks of solitary confinement loomed, which I quickly tried to rationalise as just a couple of weeks in a hotel? Could be worse, I suppose.
The minute you step off that plane and into Auckland airport your status changes and you transform from regular citizen to potential super-spreader. Mask on and keep at least two metres away from anyone as you navigate a new course through previously unseen parts of the airport to have all your health documentation checked by people whose welcome and friendliness still shines through their hazmat suits, but who nonetheless leave you feeling a little unsettled.
When at one point I leaned forward to respond to a question with a joke, the recipient recoiled – and it wasn’t just the weakness of my humour. Cold professionalism returned and “stay your distance, mate” reminded me that I was a walking national liability. And given that Sydney is back to recording Covid deaths and the last lockdown here cost the NZ economy $440 million a week, this was difficult to argue with.
Immigration and the rest of the formalities were a continuation of the same friendly, efficient but unsettling experience and then, rather than spill out into the familiar arrivals hall, you are hurried onto a bus and your bags loaded where you learn… “phew, it’s Auckland” and somewhere called the Four Points Hotel, which the bus driver tells us is “choice”. I suspect he says that about all the hotels.
Processing at the hotel (and this is what it feels like now) is supervised by more people in full protection gear and the army. Again. Friendly. Efficient. Unsettling. Within an hour I am in my small but very comfortable room, reunited with my baggage and having already had the first of two arrival Covid tests. I should say that I know from Facebook groups and forums that this is not everyone’s experience, but what I saw would make the reception and concierge team at the Ritz proud.
Now to deal with jet lag and this stuffy head I’ve got.
Day three and the second Covid test is a bit of a treat, really, as it breaks the already well-established monotony of walking around the car park for an hour and being in my room. My jet lag has metamorphosed into a sore throat.
Which of course it wasn’t, because despite my first Pfizer jab 17 days before, I had Covid.
Maybe it was because I was viewed and treated as having Covid before I got it, maybe for once I really had listened to my own body or maybe it was paranoia, but from the moment of arriving in New Zealand, I had self-tested using the free flow test kits the NHS supplies. I was given two by a nice man in a high-vis jacket on London’s Carnaby Street who was handing them out like promotional leaflets.
As you can see, the progress of Covid is clear as the double lines appear.
Despite this, to have the sympathetic nurse on the phone confirm the official test results was shocking. I felt genuinely low and not a little scared as I was bussed away through Auckland traffic looking incredibly conspicuous in light blue PPE kit and a face mask. I was pointed at by a child in a car like I was some bogeyman, and of course he was right.
So four days after landing I was checked into Jet Park and am momentarily a statistic on a government chart. And while my status as a super-spreader and national liability was all potential before, it’s now very real, so Jet Park is maximum security and comes with more rigorous daily health checks, but the same professional, courteous and genuinely friendly staff.
Happily for me, that first Pfizer jab seems to have shortened the length of time I have shown symptoms, but in a fun four days I had a cough, headaches, sore throat, runny nose, temperatures, loss of taste and smell and weirdly aching joints. It’s not a pleasant thing, even in its mild form.
MIQ rules mean that everyone has to be in for a minimum of 14 days and if you develop Covid, you have to be in 10 days from when the symptoms first appeared, and your release is conditional that all symptoms have gone for at least the last three days of that time. Right now a tiny hangover cough means my stay will be extended by at least 24 hours. Incredibly annoying as you can imagine, especially as this is a regular after-effect of Covid. But there is no all-clear test. Once you have had Covid, dead cells remaining in your system will be picked up by any regular Covid test for weeks afterwards, so it is difficult to be definitive about when you are fully healthy again.
MIQ is not perfect, especially the incredibly random voucher booking system that causes huge and unnecessary pain to so many New Zealand with very real and deep-felt family reasons to need to travel, but it caught me and while I don’t yet know the genome results from my test, given I spent most of my time in Manchester, the chances are I had the delta variant. And we just have to look over the Tasman to see how fast that is spreading through a largely unvaccinated population.
With the greatest of respect to the owners of the Four Points Hotel and Jet Park, I very much never want to darken the doors of either establishment again, but I will long remember with great fondness the army personnel, the hotel staff and the medical teams who have made an unpleasant two weeks bearable with their humour and care.
If this was a Tripadvisor review I would rate the food and room quality at the Four Points higher, but the walking area and room size at Jet Park are better and after two weeks cooped up, that has become more important. I can get 10,000 steps in at Jet Park in an hour which would make me giddy if I tried in the tiny car park area under the Four Point (though to be fair, you can be bussed to a bigger walking area).
There’s Uber Eats and Countdown delivery to make life easier, and I even managed to get a spin bike delivered to my room at the Four Points, so it’s all very bearable and I suspect until we get UK level of jabs in arms, it’s here to stay.
And we should be happy about that, because on the whole it’s a pretty effective barrier against the pandemic.