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OPINION: Omicron and my struggle to be home for Christmas

OPINION: Omicron and my struggle to be home for Christmas

Monday 06 December 2021

OPINION: Omicron and my struggle to be home for Christmas

Monday 06 December 2021


South African-born Guernsey resident Nina Mattinson has been caught up in new travel restrictions imposed by the UK on people returning from some African countries following the discovery of the omicron variant of covid-19.

The disruption is costing Nina thousands of pounds. There have been frequent changes in what she is required to do, much of which is far from straightforward. It has become a stressful episode for Nina and her family and friends in Guernsey and South Africa.

In her own words, Nina shares her increasingly challenging experience as she battles to get back to Guernsey in time for Christmas, weeks after she was originally due back. 

Nina writes:

“I have come to South Africa to visit my family. I haven’t seen them in nearly four years. My mum has not been well and I was hoping to spend some quality time with her.

I had booked a return trip with the return flight due on 4 December. I have been hugely stressed from the morning of 26 November, when I woke to find hundreds of messages from friends and family asking how I was going to get home. South Africa is two hours ahead of the UK and so I hadn’t seen the British news from the night before.

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Pictured: News of new travel restrictions emerged ahead of a weekend, which was the first of many hurdles Nina faced trying to revise her arrangements. 

I had absolutely no idea what to do. Almost immediately, panic set in. There was a lot of confusion and uncertainty when trying to speak with anyone in the travel industry. Having had this news effectively on a weekend, I couldn’t get hold of anyone who could offer advice as most places you would think to call were shut.

I was and still am quite angry that no reasonable arrangements had been made for the safe return of the UK citizens and residents who were left stranded. I strongly feel that the imposed quarantine charges should have been covered by the UK Government, especially for anyone who could prove flights had been booked prior the announcement and that they had not chosen to travel at that time. We had made all reasonable precautions for traveling abroad - including double vaccination and obeying all the rules - but facing a £2,300 forced quarantine charge is not something you can prepare for.

I received no information from the airline or from Expedia, who I had booked flights through. In fact, Expedia agents I spoke with had no idea anything was happening. The only help I had to navigate the minefield was from my husband who had stayed in Guernsey and was helping where he could by telephoning the UK numbers to save on roaming fees, etc. There has been so much to deal with.

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Pictured: Nina is among thousands of people trying to make new plans around the sudden and unexpected travel restrictions.

With the benefit of hindsight, I can see how keeping the original return flight and booking quarantine would have worked out better for me financially in the long run. But at the same time and with the same hindsight, it actually highlighted the issues I was facing which prevented me from getting on the plane this weekend.

Given the timeline of events, there was only a very small window of opportunity for me to have got everything I needed together to be able to fly on Saturday 4 December and that would have happened only if I had known exactly what I was doing.

In the beginning, my husband was very ready and willing to forward me the cash to pay for quarantine so that I could come home. But I was extremely reluctant. £2,300 is a lot of money - so I kept that in mind as a last resort as I tried to negotiate my way through my options. I thought I had enough time to do what I needed to do, as my flight home was a week away, so I thought things could work out for me either way.

To be clear, there has been no advice from anyone about the best way to deal with this situation and most people could offer only a ‘good luck with it all' as they too did not know which way to turn. If I'd had a clear plan, or step-by-step guide, I may have been able to navigate the regulations and book quarantine and the pre-travel test, etc. in South Africa in the short window I had, but there really was just no time available to make this happen whilst stabbing in the dark at what the best options were for me.

I have spent just about every hour of every day researching and looking into my situation, speaking with whomever I could and trying to find the best way forward for myself. I even joined a Facebook group which was set up to help Brits and South Africans stuck in similar situations in the hope of gaining some feedback. I have had very little sleep and the group only became useful once the travel ban had been lifted and people were starting to move.

I have had a week of constant re-reading of the red list rules and what I need to do to follow them. I've also been tracking Zurich policies, as my flight home included a stop in Switzerland, what the cancellation policies are for Expedia, worrying if my flight was going to be cancelled, where else could I travel fly to, etc.

Nairobi was really looking good at one point as a green list country and less than £100 for a 10-day stay until I found out it was not safe for women to travel there on their own. I was generally stomping out fires generated from this now toxic environment and any plans I was trying to make were constantly met with large obstacles.

The British Consulate would not give me any advice. In fact, they have a recording on their phone line advising that they cannot help with the current situation and to refer to the UK Government's website. I tried calling them several times before I gave up.

Swiss Air decided they would not carry any passengers other than Swiss nationals travelling to Switzerland, but they did not cancel my flight. It was still showing as confirmed and my travel insurance would cover only a new flight if the airline cancelled. My travel insurance would not cover anything relating to this event, but would be happy to cover my illness if I contracted covid. If I cancelled the flight myself, I’d lose out on the flight completely and then need to rebook a flight at my own cost, which I ended up doing in the end. If I didn’t show up to my flight, I’d be charged a no-show fee. If I went ahead with the flight, I’d need a covid test, confirmed and booked quarantine and completed travel trackers for Switzerland and the UK.

My original flight booked with Expedia was with Swiss Air. Expedia policy is that to change a flight you have to rebook with the same airline, but there were no Swiss Air flights on Expedia for Swiss Air to be able to rebook. People were not able to book a quarantine hotel because the UK had not yet sorted out hotels. You could not find flights on any website. You could not book a quarantine hotel and I found it very difficult to find another testing centre to agree to a travel test when there was a ban in place. No one would help or advise you on your best course of action.

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Pictured: Guernsey resident Nina travelled to South Africa last month to visit family, including her mum. She was due to fly home to Guernsey this past weekend, but is still in South Africa as a result of the latest covid-19 travel restrictions. 

The travel ban lifted only late Wednesday. I know this because I was online most of the day on Wednesday trying to get a new flight. It was impossible to get a new flight until late Wednesday evening around 21:30 UK time when suddenly flights became live on the websites.

The testing centre I booked my covid test with for the Thursday had let me know on the Wednesday that they had to shut due to covid. And with a travel ban still in place, other testing places that I could get hold of were reluctant to do a pre-travel covid test until it was known all was clear for travel.

You cannot book your passenger locator form without a confirmed quarantine hotel booking. To book a pre-travel test appointment, you need to ensure they are an approved test centre and give them the details of the UK requirements for testing. You also need to ensure they are open on a weekend if you need a test before a Monday flight. Booking a quarantine hotel and getting a confirmed reference number can take up to 48 hours, as stated on the UK Government website, but from what I found out it takes a lot longer, so you need to book well in advance.

Everything travel related being blocked in the travel ban period made it impossible to fill out the quarantine hotel booking form as you have to confirm flight details. The quarantine hotel booking is only finally confirmed 48 hours prior to departure. That is a shocking practice considering you’ve just handed over a large amount of money to them. In fact, I still haven’t received my first email they advise you will get. The passenger locator form needs to be submitted 48 hours prior to departure and you must fill in your quarantine hotel booking confirmation.

With all of the above in mind, and despite my reluctance towards paying the quarantine cost, there was just no way I would have had the mandatory paperwork together in time to travel on 4 December.

Further to this, I’ve also faced other issues.

I've been having trouble receiving texts or phone calls as my roaming on my phone had reached its original £50 spend limit, despite having a roaming booster, so I was unable to receive texts from the various organizations requiring online registration with SMS verification. I had to contact Sure and have now increased my roaming spend limit to £100. I will need to be contacted while in quarantine so I may need to increase the limit again.

Whilst away from the island, I am not being paid by my employers. Having eventually realized that it would be impossible for me to arrange all the moving cogs to make the flight on 4 December, and considering the cost of the quarantine, my husband and I decided it would be best to rebook a new flight. Our thoughts were that the apparently milder nature of the variant made it seem possible that the red list status would be changed.

I booked a new flight with BA direct and cancelled the original return flight so as not to incur no-show charges. On one occasion in my search for a flight, I was on the phone to Virgin for just under two hours, mainly on hold, as it was the only flight showing on any website and I was trying to purchase it. Someone answered the call but immediately cut the call off.

The Guernsey post code is a huge problem for trying to book anything online. And this was especially noticeable when booking a quarantine hotel. I believe the call centre for the quarantine booking is based in a non-English speaking place where I received no help whatsoever on the basis of the post code. They did not know where Guernsey was and kept saying I had to put a UK post code in and nor did they know how to change the online form. I ended up using a post code of a relative in the UK.

The UK Government website advises what specifications the PCR test requires and the acceptable format for a test result. I had to check with many test centres to find out if they were approved centres and if their testing matched UK requirements. When my approved test centre cancelled my test the afternoon before I was due the test, it was not so easy to work out where to go instead and then try to get a new appointment for the same day.

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Pictured: Nina had not seen some of her family for nearly four years when she travelled to South Africa last month. 

It has in the end been impossible for me to get an earlier flight than 13 December to allow myself the time to make arrangements required to travel under red list rules. We do not have the money and I would rather have used this money to help my mum get better, but my husband is paying my quarantine for me so that I can be home with him and our cat for Christmas Day. I have booked my pre-flight covid test for the 72 hours before the flight.

I am doing everything I can to get home and it has been and is a hugely stressful experience and has been extremely costly to me.

Dealing with the stresses from this has been overwhelming and the stress I am having is also impacting on my mum's health and has hugely affected our time together as I have for this last week been trying to sort everything out and not been able to do things with her.

The locals are understandably very upset that the UK has put them on the red list so close to Christmas. The South African Rand is very weak and has fallen even more following last week's announcement. The country was looking forward to inviting much-needed income from travel - and this could impact the country for many years to come.

South Africans all agree - they may have identified the strain but it did not necessarily originate here and this is effectively crippling the economy. Travel centres such as Cape Town were very quiet while I was there and that was before the announcement. It is sad that the economy of South Africa will be hit so harshly by lack of tourists so close to a Christmas."

Nina Mattinson.

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