Trying to get space in a quarantine hotel felt like trying to get Glastonbury tickets. But instead of standing in a field watching Jay-Z, the reward was a 10-day stay in a box room in the Radisson Blu at Heathrow Airport. And instead of taking half an hour for the tickets to sell out, it took three hours of refreshing till availability came up. When we eventually did get our room booked we celebrated as if we had got Glastonbury tickets. The fact that we were celebrating shelling out nearly £4,000 to stay in a hotel against our will should be all you need to know about how stressful the experience was.
The company in charge of the UK’s quarantine hotel system is called Corporate Travel Management (CTM). Their booking website is like going back in time to the advent of the internet. When we first tried to secure our room, all we got was a message saying there were no rooms available and that we would have to rearrange our flights. There were no other instructions other than an email address that was not fully visible. They were completely unresponsive to our attempts to contact them.
It was at this point that I started having a mild panic attack. If we couldn’t book a room then we couldn’t get on our plane. If we couldn’t get on our plane then we would have to re-book our flights, creating even more expense. For those who haven’t had a panic attack before, it is a horrible experience. Your heart starts beating faster. Your breathing becomes laboured and your stomach feels like it’s being gripped by some malevolent force. It felt like things were spiralling out of control and that we were beginning to bleed money by the bucket. It didn’t feel fair when South Africa had been a 'green list' country when we’d travelled out there. Luckily my partner stayed cool and continually refreshed the page until, finally, we had our room.
Later that night we met a German family who had also had the misfortune to visit South Africa just as the country’s scientists were identifying the omicron variant. It turned out they had already been reallocated a flight back to Germany and would be allowed to simply return home to self-isolate. They were disappointed to cut their holiday short but also calm and relaxed. Everything my partner and I were not. When we told them what we were going through, they were shocked – and actually raised a toast to “not being British”. I couldn’t blame them. Anyway, at least we’d got a room and could return home. Some of the uncertainty was over and surely the hotel experience couldn’t be that bad considering they’d had time to improve it since earlier in the year. How wrong I was...
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Last Wednesday we flew back to the UK with a bunch of other equally miserable people. Conversations revolved around the madness of the situation. We all grimaced as the pilot, upon arrival, made the faux-pas of saying “enjoy your onward journey”. At Heathrow we were herded onto a shuttle bus to a specially-designated terminal for red list arrivals. Once there we had to queue for an hour to get a slip of paper saying which hotel we were staying at, before we were then herded onto another bus. Once that bus was full, we were driven to what would be our new home for the next 10 days. However, once we arrived at the hotel, we were made to wait for another 30 minutes on the bus while they took our passports from us so they could sign us in at reception. The bus was packed and even more confined than the airplane. We asked if we could wait outside, but this was denied without reason.
Once in the hotel, we had to wait in a holding area and fill out a bunch of forms before we could get our room key. As part of this, we had to choose every single meal for the next 10 days. By this point it was 21.30 and we hadn’t been fed since lunchtime. We were tired and hungry but the hotel manager assured us that we would be fed soon. Finally we were given our room key.
I had set my expectations low and it turns out I was right to. We were in a standard box room with a bathroom overlooking McDonalds. What a view! By 22.30 we still had no food. I called the reception. They said it would be with us in 15 mins. By 23.30 we still had no food and gave up on eating before bed. I posted a note under my door: ‘Do not disturb. We have gone to bed’. So imagine my surprise when I was woken up at 1am by a knock on the door. I opened it to find a security guard holding out a brown paper bag at me with no apology attached.
I opened the bag to discover a stone cold curry in cardboard packaging. It’s going to be a long 10 days, I thought.
I sit here writing this article three days into our 10-day stay. The food provided has generally been unhealthy and consisted largely of rich curries swimming in oil. Luckily a friend took pity on us and sent us some fresh vegetables and salads. We are allowed outside for exercise in a small car park. The first morning we went out there, the car park was icy and slippery. We recommended to security that they salted the ground before someone got hurt. Everyone passed the buck. The security are all hired by G4S and no one is willing to take responsibility. No senior management is around and CTM refuses to respond to emails or calls.
My partner and I understand the need to protect our fellow citizens in the UK and having to self-isolate felt like a reasonable request. If we could do it at home, that would be fine. After all, we’d had enough practice over the last few years. What hurt was the unexpected and frankly ludicrous cost of the quarantine hotel. My partner and I both have good jobs. We have some savings kept aside in the bank. But forking out £3,715 still hurts. A lot. If the Government can waste billions of pounds on ‘Track & Trace’ and ‘Eat Out to Help Out’, why can’t they subsidise the relatively few people who have had to quarantine in a hotel? Like much of our response to this pandemic, it’s hard to find any discernible logic to it.
For now, my partner and I will sit it out but we plan to fight tooth and nail to get our money back. The stress of what we’ve been through has been immense and it feels like a long time until we’d be willing to try our hand at going abroad for the foreseeable future.
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