I am writing this on day zero, having arrived at my government-designated quarantine hotel after 24 hours of travel. I need to isolate in my room for 10 days and 11 nights. It is, to put it mildly, a bit of a dump: a tired, chipped Formica table, sagging curtains, freezing cold. For this, I paid £2,285.
So what is that like? Sitting in this room, I just want to burst into tears. My despair is exacerbated by the knowledge that my suitcase was filled with sleeveless summer clothes suitable for the South African summer, not Birmingham in the bleak midwinter. I phone reception, who tell me that they have only just put the heating on; I should be patient, they say. The room will be warm in 20 minutes. Half an hour later my teeth are still chattering so I phone again, demanding a heater. Another phone call and, half an hour later, a heater is produced. I am forced to perch it on the table because the power socket on the floor is broken.
I’m not that fussy about food, though I do long to eat off an actual ceramic plate – everything turns up in those little aeroplane-style packages, with wooden cutlery to boot. This is what £2,285 gets you right now.
How did it come to this? My recent trip to South Africa had already been postponed three times, so when the dreaded red-list status was lifted I seized the chance to visit my birthplace of Cape Town, where my family lives (including my parents, who are in their 90s). On Friday 26 November, the final day of my trip, I got the news that South Africa had re-joined the red list, its reward for informing the world about the Omicron variant. Flights were rapidly cancelled, including my own.
I needed to get back so I booked through Ethiopian Airlines, via Addis Ababa, and took a pre-flight PCR test. No problem: done and dusted. It was navigating the UK’s passenger locator form maze that would be the problem – and the lottery. I had to book and pay for a quarantine package without knowing where I would be sent.
My first hope was for a nice hotel in Gatwick, and I waited ages for the confirmation. I phoned up the company organising it, was put on hold and then told I would be called back. I wasn’t. Soon after that came confirmation that I wouldn’t be staying in Gatwick: “Unfortunately, due to customer demand there is no availability for the dates selected.” Eventually I managed to book another hotel: I was heading for Birmingham.
The departure from Cape Town went smoothly. All seemed normal, apart from one thing: all the flight attendants wore visors, masks and long-sleeved paper disposable gowns, full PPE.
Heathrow was also surreal, with passengers travelling from red-listed countries ushered to one side but separated from other passengers by no more than barrier tape. There must have been a thousand people in that arrivals hall, all tightly packed, some wearing masks, some not, many wearing them incorrectly. It might as well have been a super-spreader event; there was no enforcement.
And so here I am in Birmingham. I understand that people need to be isolated, and we need to take precautions: we are still living in a pandemic. But it’s the mismanaged way that the UK goes about it that vexes me – especially since someone is certainly making money off this racket.
It all makes little sense. If, by the fifth day, I’ve received a negative PCR result and have no symptoms, why do I have to stay another five days? Then there’s the financial impact: I work at a school through an agency, and at this rate I won’t be back there until January – I’m losing income I can’t afford, especially now I have this bill of £2,285. For that money, some get the sumptuous Sofitel in London. I get this.
Still, there’s nothing to do but take each day as it comes: I’ve ordered one of those streaming USB devices to plug into the television. Count the hours, watch Netflix.