£780 on Covid tests and a 'grilling' at the border: travelling while foreign holidays are banned

Julia Buckley
·5-min read
heathrow arrivals - AP
heathrow arrivals - AP

“What passport do you hold, please? Can I ask why you’re travelling today?”

Welcome to Heathrow in the age of essential-only travel. At the moment, of course, holidays are illegal. Risk leaving the UK without a “reasonable excuse” to travel, and you can be fined £5,000.

But with various “reasonable excuses” available – work, weddings and funerals, plus the “Stanley Johnson loophole” of travelling to make your holiday home Covid-secure – I was expecting the checks to be a formality. Rest assured: they weren’t. I moved to Italy last July, but two-and-a-half weeks ago, I had to make an emergency trip to the UK.

venice canal - ANDREA PATTARO/AFP via Getty Images
venice canal - ANDREA PATTARO/AFP via Getty Images

It wasn’t easy. I booked on the Thursday. The next flight was Sunday – but to board, I needed a PCR test taken privately within 72 hours of arrival. With mounting case numbers in Italy, it took hours to book a test. The airport facility’s lab was too busy, as was the closest hospital; I spent an afternoon phoning other clinics.

Eventually, I found a 7am Friday slot, with results guaranteed within 24 hours. “I’m sorry it’s so expensive,” said the woman booking me in. As it turned out, that €130 (£110) was the cheapest part of my trip.

Much has been made of the UK’s “quarantine hotels” which cost £1,750 for a 10-day stay for those arriving from red-list countries, but it’s not exactly cheap for travellers from other destinations, either. Everyone entering England must quarantine for 10 days, and pre-book PCR tests for days two and eight, costing a standard £210 and done through the post.

For those willing to pay to speed things up, the Test to Release programme allows you to take an extra test on day five and finish quarantine once you get a negative result. The government lists dozens of providers; of those I called in London, most offered a 24-hour turnaround for £250, but the Knightsbridge Pharmacy had a four-hour option for £300 – a relative bargain.

Test to Release participants must also do the day two and eight tests – so I booked a three-test package, done via courier, for £520.

Luckily I’d bought the flight with air miles – because my ticket, by the time I booked it, would have cost £600. The journey over was a dream – with roughly one flight per hour, social distancing was easy at Venice airport, and the plane was half full, with a friendly crew enforcing mask-wearing. And although there have been nightmare tales of six-hour queues at the border, Heathrow was deserted – it took 25 minutes from plane door to car park, including a thorough check of my paperwork and reasons for travel. “You came at the right time – you should have seen it at lunchtime,” said one staffer, ruefully. A five-day quarantine is psychologically very different from the two weeks demanded by many countries.

Working remotely, I barely noticed being stuck inside, my workday interrupted only by my phone pinging with messages from the pharmacy: time to stick another swab up your nose; the courier’s on the way; congrats, you tested negative. On day five, I tested in the morning and was cleared by lunchtime. Test to Release was an expensive breeze.

Slightly less impressive were the three calls I received from government authorities, asking for the result of my day two test, and reminding me to quarantine – although I’m told that had I tested positive, the lab would have immediately informed the authorities, and things would have been much less laidback. My return to Italy came after the new rules came into force.

A fifth PCR test (£150) was needed to fly; before crossing the Heathrow threshold, I had to fill in a form declaring my reason for travel or risk that £5,000 fine. Then, at check-in, I got an extremely friendly grilling. As a British national, my online check-in had been blocked by the system. Only after I’d produced two residency documents, plus my Italian ID card, driving licence and national insurance card, and the check-in agent had cleared my details with someone in the back office, was I handed my boarding pass.

I’d thought airlines, desperate for passengers, might be interpreting those “reasonable excuses” loosely; but from what I saw, they aren’t.

The staff at Heathrow have been on the front line throughout the pandemic – many have had the virus, some have been on ventilators, one airport worker told me. It’s been, another said, the quietest Easter ever – just 2,000 people going through per day, instead of the normal 45,000. Pre-departure checks are done on reservations, which is why mine, as a Briton, was flagged for enquiries.

If you thought you could keep that holiday you booked, and claim it’s a funeral? Nope – they know when you booked. If in doubt, staff can call for government advice on whether to let you through. Plus there’s the Border Force gauntlet to run on your return.

And of course, each destination has its own rules. For Italy, you must have been resident before 23 December to enter, and travellers from the UK need yet another test on arrival. So after two ghostly hours at T5, where only Boots, Pret and WHSmith were open, and another near-empty flight, us 40-odd arrivals lined up for our free PCR test performed by the Veneto health authorities.

After a half-hour queue, it was done by a PPE-swathed staffer in a booth in the arrivals hall. My result will be available within 48 hours; but even if it’s negative, having come from the variant-cradle UK, I must quarantine for 14 days. Spending the next two weeks in my cramped studio flat is already a daunting prospect.

So, six PCR tests, two smarting nostrils, and £780 later, was it worth it? For an essential trip, yes. The five-day quarantine was eminently bearable; my Test to Release experience was flawless. Whether I’d spend that on a holiday, even if I could afford it, is another question – and a 10-day quarantine is an entirely different psychological prospect from five. “Traffic-light” system or not, were I living in the UK, a summer staycation would be looking more attractive by the day.