The glamour of international travel long ago fell victim to baggage searches and belt-removals, retail-saturated terminals, low-cost airlines and long queues at passport control. The arrival of Covid-19, mask-wearing and the fiendish paradox of social distancing on cramped airliners has only added to the generally tedious business of getting from one country to another.
Now, from Monday, further restrictions will be applied, when all so-called air corridors with other countries will close. Ten months after the first lockdown began, people flying to this country will for the first time require proof of a negative coronavirus test before setting off. And everyone who comes here will now be obliged to self-isolate for 10 days. It’s a move that many observers, including the Labour front bench, believe is long overdue.
But for those who beat the deadline, arriving in Britain was a pretty straightforward task. On Saturday morning at Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 2 hordes of suntanned reality TV stars returning from “working holidays” in Dubai were not in obvious evidence. Instead, little dribbles of bleary-eyed passengers from places as far afield as Mumbai, Frankfurt and Kigali slipped quietly through the somnambulant arrivals lounge and out into the soggy grey vista of England in January.
“Just like normal,” said Natalie Fernandes, flying in from India. “No problems at all.”
Serg Tswlnitsky, arriving from Warsaw, echoed much the same sentiment. “No tests or anything,” he said from behind his mask, with what may or may not have been a satisfied smile.
Nor, said a number of passengers, were they given advice on self-isolation or anything to do with Covid. There was an inconspicuous board at the end of the arrivals walk addressed to those who have “just arrived in the UK”. It advised people to stay indoors as much as possible and to stay alert.
But then there was also another board which announced that “One person only to meet arriving passengers”, and almost everyone ignored that, with groups of twos and threes waiting to greet arriving family and friends.
Usually an arrivals lounge is a place to witness emotional reunions, a scene of manly bear hugs and romantic cuddles, long passionate kisses and cumbersome paternal embraces. But on Saturday the homecomings were conducted with old-fashioned restraint, more Brief Encounter than Love Actually. Quick one-arm hugs and chaste cheek kisses were the most popular forms of affection on display, though several lovers waited until they got outside to remove their masks and glue their lips to one another.
For once the shops and cafes were all but empty. At the counter of Sim Local, a mobile phone shop, Seema Sood said business had been very poor for the past two weeks and she was expecting it to decline further. Would the company consider closing?
“If the airport is open,” she replied proudly, “we have to be open. We’re an essential service for the airport.”
Upstairs at the departure lounge it was a different story. Only passengers were allowed in, so loved ones had to say their goodbyes in the biting cold on a windswept landing exposed to the elements. No one seemed particularly concerned about the new restrictions as no one I spoke to had any plans to come back, at least not soon.
People, like Agathe Brasseur, who had been living here for the past five months, were going home for good to France, others to Poland or Romania. A report last week from the Office of National Statistics suggested that the combined effect of Covid and Brexit has led to a drop in the UK population, as more than 200,000 foreign nationals have returned home.
And standing outside on such a forlorn morning, it looked as if they couldn’t wait to leave, as they rushed through to departures. Although his work was in the UK, Antonis Lamaz was returning to Greece for surgery. “I don’t know when I’ll be back,” he said with a note of suppressed anxiety.
Torin Carey, a postgraduate student, was heading to Canada to study, a trip that had been delayed, as a consequence of the pandemic, since September.
“These new travel restrictions should have been brought in much earlier,” he said. “That could have made a bigger difference.”
Epidemiologists seem to be divided on the issue, though the consensus among the population at large is that the government has been too lax in allowing untested visitors to arrive with a minimal tracing system in place.
Before I left I paid a visit to the loos, half of which were out of service. Kylie Minogue’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head was piped, incongruously, into the room. “Just to be there in your arms,” she sang longingly.
It may be a while yet for many friends, family and lovers before that day comes around.