On my third day of quarantine, a nice nurse gave to me: a swab up my nasal cavity. It also happened to be Christmas.
Along with nearly 6,000 other returning New Zealanders, I was spending the festive period in quarantine at a government-managed hotel.
As a dual citizen, I had started planning my escape from London in early November, eventually managing to line up flights and a spot in isolation for two weeks from 22 December.
Spending Christmas and New Year’s Eve alone was a small price to pay to rejoin my family in relative freedom – I didn’t think twice.
On arrival at Auckland airport, following a harrowing journey of three flights totalling 24 hours, I was bussed to the Novotel Ellerslie: my home for the next fortnight, until I could be certified Covid-free.
According to a Facebook group sharing intel on the facilities across the country, I had lucked out. Not only did I have all-day access to the carpark for exercise and fresh air (under army supervision), the food was said to be excellent.
As was proudly proclaimed in the welcome pack, handed over on check-in: “There is no other quarantine like ours!”
Indeed, after I was installed in my room – predominantly bed, with a window view of an army patrol – a sheet of paper was left outside my door giving me a choice of a whole four options for Christmas lunch (and one of two sides).
I opted for the eye fillet carvery then spent the next 48 hours wondering if I should have gone for the turkey.
It is remarkable how quickly I came to anticipate the knock on my door three times a day, heralding a brown paper bag containing breakfast, lunch or dinner. By day two I was pacing the room like a zoo animal.
What next: carvery or Covid test?
The countdown to Christmas also helped to mark passage of time. Twice, on flinging open my door to seize my food delivery, I came face-to-face with my neighbour across the hall wearing a Santa hat.
Some people had brought Christmas decorations with them to display in their windows or on their doors. We were also invited to fashion them from the paper bags, for a “festive art” competition to be judged on Christmas day.
And after lunch, we were told to keep an eye out the window so as to catch a special visitor patrolling the perimeter: “Don’t forget Santa also requires you to safely stay two metres away!”
For me, Christmas day dawned too early, my jetlag not eased by days of inactivity in my climate-controlled room. Mask on, I headed downstairs to do a few loops of the car park together with (but at least two metres apart from) a few other early risers. My run-tracking app recorded 5km (3 miles) as a tightly-wound scribble.
Then it was back to the room to await my carvery, or the call to come down for my Covid test – whichever came first.
On top of a daily temperature check by a door-to-door nurse (an interaction I quickly came to look forward to as a rare outlet for my extraversion), we had been told to expect two Covid-19 tests on days three and 12.
On Christmas eve, a positive Covid result had been announced over the PA system in our rooms, necessitating a “deep clean” of the common areas – dispelling any illusion that this was just an especially lazy hotel stay.
A snapshot to remember
Summoned to a conference room for my test, a nurse rendered almost alien by PPE stuck a swab up my nose to a seasonal soundtrack of Last Christmas and Mary’s Boy Child. The army guard at the door, who had told me to step back when I went to show him my passport, was wearing a festive headdress.
Not for the first time, I was struck by the surrealness of the determined Christmas cheer amidst pandemic dystopia.
The embodiment of this was a photobooth frame at reception, decked out in tinsel and the government’s Covid-response colours of white and yellow, hashtagged with #covid19 and #selfisolation. (And beneath it, a sign saying: “PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH THE FRAME”.)
But for all the inherent oddness of the endeavour, I was also unexpectedly touched by the collective effort put into making quarantine feel like Christmas.
The Novotel’s “wellbeing team” gave us each a 1,000-piece puzzle (“quite the challenge” to complete in 14 days) and reminded us to take lots of photographs on Christmas day: “Although strange, it will definitely be one to remember.”
Indeed, I still could not quite believe I had made it here at all.
In the 24 hours before my departure, the situation in England had suddenly deteriorated, with the government abruptly calling off Christmas bubbles in response to a rapidly-spreading new variant of the virus.
Each time I had checked the headlines while in transit through Doha, then Brisbane, yet another country had banned arrivals from the so-called “plague island”. New Zealanders who had been counting down the days until their departure found their plans once again thrown into uncertainty.
So as I pulled my own cracker and toasted myself with a mug of red wine, I counted my blessings. Among them: a car park to run round, and beef from a paper bag.