They say (and I agree) that travel broadens the mind – perhaps no more so when travel is not as we know it. On this trip in the midst of a global pandemic, a trip where “tourism” and “adventure” are replaced with “reconnection” and “family domesticity”, it seems that there is, nevertheless, no shortage of mind-broadening observations to be made.
Coming from New Zealand, a place that we are led to believe is widely admired and lauded for our pandemic management, there is much to ponder as we wander about an England that is visibly learning to live with the disease. So, some observations about what that appears to mean, with the disclaimer that I am simply a random person, wandering about a very tiny part of London, which in no way represents the whole city, nor indeed the whole country.
This is not a judgement, nor indeed, even a comparison. It’s just a set of random observations about life in London.
Covid 19 is everywhere.
There is no suggestion of an “elimination strategy” – it’s just not seen as a possibility. Rising case numbers, and they are rising again, are viewed with concern, rather than panic – tempered with reducing levels of hospitalisation and deaths. There is a strong sense that “we’ve got this”, so long as everyone follows the rules.
When everyone knows someone who’s died of Covid, or been very sick, it suddenly becomes very real. People mostly take the rules seriously. They wear masks on public transport, and when shopping inside, mostly. Today I saw a woman on the bus without a mask – she had a big NHS badge on her lapel, saying that she was unable to wear a mask. Occasionally one sees people with their mask over their mouth but not nose – no one comments, but disapproving looks are passed, and people move further away.
But that level of familiarity with the disease, and what it is an does, the enormity of being locked down for most of 2020, has also made people pragmatic about how to deal with it. When Peter’s NHS app signalled that he’d been exposed and needed to self-isolate for 10 days from the exposure, Rob & Jenna were calm, and wouldn’t hear of us moving out (thankfully, because that would have been difficult). He self-tested, didn’t hold the baby, and generally was a bit more careful, but mostly just vigilant for any symptoms.
Vaccines are seen as the saviour.
The British vaccination rollout has been swift and apparently effective. While there are always bureaucratic glitches when bureaucrats are involved, in the main it appears to be rolling along quite quickly towards the goal of a “fully vaccinated” adult population – obviously not 100%, but aiming to be pretty close to that. Current point of contention is the gap between the two doses – one assumes purposefully lengthened to 12 weeks to push more people through the ‘first shot’ sooner, but nevertheless frustrating for those really, really wanting their second shot.
Rob & Jenna drove across London one afternoon last week when they heard there was a clinic happy to do second doses anytime after the manufacturer’s 3 week specification. We celebrated having a fully vaxed household!
The anti-vaxers must exist here as they do wherever else “freedom of speech” is valued, but they don’t seem to get any airtime at all. In the two days after the vaccination rollout opened up to the 18 – 29 year olds, over a million appointments were made. Long queues formed outside the roll-up vaccination clinic down the road from us, where temporary traffic signs proclaimed vaccinations are available to anyone 18+, from 8.30am to 5.30pm every day. Anyone.
One assumes that the next tranche will be to vaccinate the children, at least those aged 12+, as they are now doing in the USA. UK case numbers increases are currently being driven by the unvaccinated, including that age group.
Quarantine-free travel is the “carrot” – and a massive incentive it is too.
While countries are being careful not to suggest that there is a “vaccine passport”, it is becoming clearer every day that the fully vaccinated will have the holiday spots of Europe pretty much to themselves this summer. Some countries are waiving the requirement for pre-travel testing for the fully vaccinated, as well as any need to isolate on arrival.
There is a certain irony in the fact that the vaccination rollout left those most wanting / needing to travel – the young – to last…. while granny in the resthome has (one might argue justifiably) been fully vaccinated for some time, her grandchildren wanting to visit her are still awaiting their shots.
And while international travel may be seen as a luxury, an indulgence by some, the reality for the truly multi-national population of most countries these days is that travel is essential to maintaining family connections, and indeed, connections with one’s homeland, wherever that may be. Physically cutting off the rich diaspora of citizens living abroad cannot be in any country’s long term interests.
Rob’s friends talk a lot about wanting to visit “home”, wherever that may be – and many are experiencing very real financial and emotional hardship to do so. One couple talked about having to book a ‘layover’ of 2 weeks in Namibia in order to get the non-South African husband into South Africa with the rest of the family – ironically, they had to travel through Johannesburg to get to Namibia!
The thought of taking young babies into quarantine facilities is scary, travelling with spouses who are from other countries is difficult, sometimes impossible – they contrast the UK systems, which are relatively easy to navigate, and which mostly allow isolation ‘at home’, to those of their home countries, which are mostly much more difficult, expensive, stressful and even alienating. “Home” no longer wants them, it seems.
If vaccines are the saviour, then testing, testing, testing is the saviour’s right hand man.
Perhaps the most interesting observations for me have been around testing. There a quite a range of types of tests available, and each appears to have its purpose. The highest level (PCR, I think) required for travellers entering from high risk countries… all the way to the most commonly used “rapid antigen” tests, that are handed out free (like lollies) by the NHS, in packs of 7 tests at a time, to enable everyone to be able to test themselves, whenever they want.
Akin to that home pregnancy test that changes colour with the result, a quick swab at home provides reassurance that you’re safe to visit granny, go to that parent-teacher interview, or simply meet an at-risk friend for coffee. Also used as a “ticket” (along with your paid ticket) to allow you to attend major sporting events, like the Euro2020 football matches, and the Black Caps crickets tests against England.
There are free, rapid testing stations on almost every street corner (small exaggeration, but you get the picture), specifically for testing the well to provide reassurance.
The NHS smartphone app has lots of cool functions
With all this testing going on, it make sense to keep track of results, and that’s part of the role of the NHS app. Besides enabling QR-code log-ins at hospitality venues and many retailers, and Bluetooth enabled contact tracing, the ‘covid-app’ also records test results (self-administered and lab-administered ones), and your vaccination status if you’re vaccinated in the UK.
There’s a screener for symptoms, a guide on where to get what types of tests, and what they mean, and a log of test results. Many venues refuse entry if you don’t check in – in fact, in York we had a very annoying experience where I checked in, and then (because I didn’t have data on my phone), I couldn’t order anything from their QR-code enabled remote menu.
And amazingly, as a sidenote, the bluetooth tracker genuinely doesn’t seem to drain your phone’s battery!
“Freedom day is coming”.
The real sense here in England is that there is no going back.
The current restrictions – masks, isolation, testing – were due to be lifted on 23rd June, then delayed to 19th July with the arrival of the Delta variant. A purposeful delay, to allow the younger generation to be vaccinated. Once they are, there are no more excuses.
Travel ‘restrictions’ will remain – testing pre-entry, self-isolation for most visitors with testing in the first 10 days (though there’s talk that will be completed waived for the fully vaccinated), and hotel quarantine only for those from very high risk countries (the “red zone”).
But international travel will be back – at least to those countries who will have them.
Vigilance will continue – testing, tracking and tracing… and a lower tolerance of those who go out while sick (with anything) and spread their germs around – which is surely a positive move for civilisation in general. Face coverings will, one suspects, remain a standard item in every woman’s handbag, every man’s pocket – to be used by choice rather than by mandate, when circumstances make it sensible.
Vaccinations will be ongoing – there is already talk of a booster shot in Autumn, ideally (but maybe unlikely) to be combined with the annual flu shot.
And much as the situation is more analogous to a war than a crisis of other sorts, the outcome is likely to be conquest, domination, and beating the viral enemy into submission, rather then extinction any time soon.