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Postcard from nowhere: COVID, chaos and confusion

December 7, 2021

There’s been lots of stuff in the media about chaos and confusion around the new travel rules introduced by the UK. They specify that those travelling back to the UK must take a COVID PCR or lateral flow test within two days of their return to the country. This article on the BBC website talks about the impact.

In our case, thanks to a simple misuse of language, my wife and I came within a whisker of missing our flight home from Singapore. We were lucky. About fifty others, it seems, didn’t make the flight.

The confusion arose through the use of the word “travel”. Here’s the wording from the Government website:

Does travelling mean the point at which you leave a country, or does it mean the point of arrival? We were due to leave Singapore well before the 4am Tuesday deadline, which led us to believe that we wouldn’t need a pre-departure test. However, we were due to arrive at 5.30am, 90 minutes after the deadline.

So we went to great lengths to clarify the government’s clear-as-mud language. We twice called British Airways, who twice told us that we didn’t need to test. In other words, they agreed with our interpretation, as did many others on a couple of well-known aviation website to which my wife subscribes. All good, we thought.

So we arrived at Changi airport three hours before departure, only to be told by the check-in staff (who didn’t work for British Airways) that we needed the test. Panic. After half an hour of patiently explaining that we didn’t need a test because BA had told us so, we got nowhere. The agent even told us that if we arrived without a test, the UK would send us back to Singapore! So they wouldn’t let us board without one.

Fortunately, there’s a testing centre at another terminal at Changi airport. We rushed over there and managed to get a lateral flow test which, of course, was negative. We made it back to the BA desk as the flight was closing. We understand that fifty others, who also had not done a test and were too late to get the test at the airport, missed the flight. They included a guy who had waited in the check-in queue for an hour. When he got to the desk, he was also too late. If the check-in staff had made an announcement that tests were, in fact required, he and many of the others who ended up missing the flight would have been able to get the test in time to fly.

So who was responsible for this monumental cock-up? British Airways, whose agents refused to let these people fly? The British government, who, by the simple expedient of using the words “before departure” and “before arrival” in their guidance would have avoided the confusion? And if we alone were were guilty of “misinterpreting” the rule, how come fifty were also culpable?

When we arrived at Heathrow we went straight to the e-gates and sailed through. It’s highly unlikely that our negative test at Changi would have been added to the passenger location information we filled in before departure. So the kindest interpretation would be that British Airways were covering their arses to the detriment of their fifty passengers. The unkindest would be that in some way the Singapore government was involved in the decision. But why? Overenthusiastic misinterpretation of the British government’s intention? I can’t think of any other reason. I have no evidence either way, but our experience on arrival in Singapore, about which I shall be posting shortly, might explain our suspicion.

We also have anecdotal evidence that people arriving at Heathrow after the deadline from other countries were not required to test before departure. Apparently at least twenty people leaving Mauritius at the same time as us had the same problem. But in their case the BA staff made four phone calls to the UK Border Force and were finally assured that the passengers didn’t need the test. Why this didn’t happen in our case we have no idea. It probably didn’t help that there was no BA representative at our check-in.

We are seasoned long-haul travellers. I like to think that we’re not stupid. We did everything we could to establish that we didn’t need the pre-departure test. The result was that despite being triple jabbed, we had to do four tests, all negative, for one trip. My wife had to do another two plus a blood test, which is the subject of my next post.

I appreciate that ours was a first-world problem. But the survival of the travel industry, on which many jobs depend, is more than an issue affecting a privileged few. Living through a pandemic is bad enough, but when governments compound the problem with poorly drafted regulations, it feels more like economic suicide by pandemic.

PS: It gets worse. According to a contributor to one travel website, an entire planeload of people from Newark in the US were denied boarding last night at BA’s direction. They have been asked to do PCRs (not lateral flows, as permitted per the government rules) and will be put on today’s flight. They were sent an email with this news three hours before they were due to depart. At least they got an email, which was more than we had….

From → Business, Travel, UK

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