There is always an element of risk in trying to second guess the plans of a government that is more prone to U-turns than a seven-year-old, living in a suburban cul-de-sac, given their first bike and told to exhaust themselves before bedtime. Still, here we are, almost a year into this crisis, and the Number 10 carousel is again, as Kylie Minogue kind of said, spinning around, move out of my way, I know you’re feeling me ‘cos you like it like this.
Today, we were told, was the day we would be given the full facts on the recently announced policy of obligatory hotel quarantine for travellers arriving in the UK from certain “high-risk” countries. This headline-grabbing idea has been the talk of travel for the last fortnight, but beyond the requirement to hunker down for 10 days, exact details remain notable by their absence – and anyone who thinks enlightenment will be coming on this fine Thursday afternoon has, according to Downing Street, been “misinformed”.
Where will travellers be required to isolate? How will they get there? Will the quarantine-doer be required to pay for their privilege in full – or will there be some sort of discount?
Your guess is still as good as ours. But while we wait for Matt Hancock, or Grant Shapps, or whoever it is, to pluck their nicest tie and best “sincere face” from the wash basket, wipe off the soup stains, and pretend they know what they are talking about, let’s make a reasonable assumption. This enforced quarantine, if it happens, will take place in a series of airport hotels. Because, in the 21st century, travellers coming into Britain mainly arrive at airports.
And if they are enough of a risk of spreading the virus to necessitate a week-and-a-half in a room of their own – as this policy suggests – then the obvious course of action is for them to move as short a distance as possible. In other words, out of the terminal, and into the various accommodation options around the perimeters of airports that normally cater to passengers on the go, but which aren’t doing much at the moment.
Which – let us be truthful – is a bleak scenario. There is a palpable bleakness to this whole idea – the fears about civil liberties that it invites; the reasonable debate as to whether it should have been introduced sooner; the big old question as to whether applying it to passengers from some countries but not others renders it useless. It is a dank, bleak topic.
But beyond and below this, there is a further bleakness – and you can find it in the unholy combination of the words “airport” and “hotel”. Allow yourself a nervous shudder, if you will. For there are few bleaker places on God’s currently unclean planet than those accommodation options that are found somewhere close (or close-ish, anyway) to a runway. Bleakness, thy name is “4am check-out, and breakfast from a vending machine”.
Not that anyone is doing any checking out – unless they've done their full sentence under lock and plastic swipecard. Checking out is for holidaymakers; for people with plans and locations they wish to visit. Whereas this, this is... well, put it this way. Have you read the Inferno section of Dante's Divine Comedy? No? A quick summary, then. Chap drops into hell. Strolls about a bit. Yadda yadda. Gets to the Ninth Circle, and realises, in cold terror, that he's in a (nominally) three-star “property” that sells itself as an “airport hotel” – even though it's three miles from Heathrow, by some big dustbins. He pays £190 for the night.
All right, I'm exaggerating. But, rather like Dante, you really should be wondering what you've done with your life – and whether you've strayed from the sensible path – if, whatever-it-is number of months into a pandemic, you find yourself in a two-square-metre “superior suite”, ringing reception for a toilet roll that you aren't allowed to collect.
At this juncture, a trip to the Fifth Circle (Wrath) or the Seventh (Violence) will sound comparatively appealing. But no leaving the room, please. This is strictly self-isolation. Which could be a new TV series, but it probably won't work in the Saturday evening slot.
Bleak, bleak, bleak. So bleak, in fact, that it might be the solution to the entire situation. If Covid could just be contained within the least recently refurbished hotel a park-and-ride bus journey from Gatwick, it would soon lose its pep and tireless desire to reproduce.
Still, while we’re waiting for Shapps, let’s embrace this bleakness. The airport hotel has a style and a character all of its own. And if you happen to find yourself staying in one, whether it’s for quarantine or “pleasure”, here are some of the fine facets you can expect:
1. The window that will only open a crack
In luxury hotels, you can fling wide the veranda doors onto an ocean panorama and a palm-framed trail meandering down to the beach. In Room 47 of the Airport Go-tel!, the best you’ll get is about an inch of space before the window mechanism locks – on account of the location being not a Pacific shoreline, but an industrial estate with a 24-hour freight delivery timetable and a nice line in slumbering lorry drivers. Still, that gap will be just enough to let in all the fresh air and sweet stench of kerosene your nostrils can cope with.
2. The coffee buffet
We live in a world which takes its coffee seriously. We have gourmet pod machines on stand-by in our kitchens; there are flat white outlets on every city corner (or, at least, there were until Mr Covid became a regular customer). But you can avail yourself of your caffeine fix in your room – via the plastic-bagged parcel of dreams next to the mini-kettle. A sachet-tube of instant coffee that will prove impervious to being opened until you use your teeth – at which point, it will scatter half its contents across the carpet. A tiny tub of long-life “creamer” – enough to brighten your brew to the colour of riverbed mud. A sharpened stirrer that doubles as a tooth-pick. Mmm. That’s morning nirvana, right there.
3. “Have you tried a different socket?”
Did we mention the mini-kettle? Sorry, it’s broken…
4. Lava in a cup
… but don’t worry, there’s a hot-drinks machine in reception (non-quarantine guests only, I’m afraid. Company policy). Simply insert your £3 (yeah, no, we haven’t gone cashless yet. Apologies for the inconvenience), and you can hold, in your own rapidly reddening hands, a paper beaker filled with liquid so seismically hot that you may need skin grafts in the future. Sure, it doesn’t have any flavour – but then, bearing mind that it will destroy your mouth’s ability to taste anything for the next seven hours, you aren’t missing much.
5. The largely-empty vending machine
The boiling-drinks dispenser may have all the options – running the gauntlet from tea to coffee via silty hot chocolate – but, alas, the snacks vending machine is no similar feast for fantasies. Unless your favourite snack is that slow-turning metal dispenser thing where another snack used to be. However, why not treat yourself to that flavour of crisps you’ve always hated, even if it’s the only option behind the bar when you buy the last round of the night – or a chocolate bar that you haven’t seen in an actual shop since 1987?
6. The wrong-length shower “curtain”
Is it a curtain? Is it a perspex panel that only covers a fraction of the space that requires covering? You can ponder this conundrum at leisure as you attempt to wash yourself in a shower that resembles a jerking garden hose-pipe left unattended in a classic Tom & Jerry cartoon. Hey, look on the bright side – you just about managed to get some of the water onto your body. All right, it was either so cold that you couldn’t believe it wasn’t ice, or hotter than even a vending-machine coffee. But come on now, it’s the thought that counts.
7. The soap you can’t steal
Nothing says “classy” like a hotel which so little trusts its guests not to fill their bags with mini toiletries that it glues a soap-dispenser into place. Who wants to smell of lavender and orange blossom when they can bathe themselves in a pale goo of indeterminate scent - having spent seven minutes desperately waggling the lever to get anything to come out?
8. The loo that doesn’t reach the floor
And who needs bathroom aesthetics when you can stick the toilet halfway up the wall, and leave it that? Bonus facility – space for the loo roll to spool under your feet and into the puddle/ocean of water sloshing across the tiles in the wake of your shower (see 6).
9. The most splendid of soundtracks
It’s 5am. You’re exhausted. Your flight in from Chicago was delayed, and you had to wait an hour for the arrivals carousel to cough up your luggage. But now, finally, you can drift into the loving arms of sleep, and… oh what’s that? Ah, the people in the next room are clanking their wheely-suitcases against the skirting board. Seriously, are they trying to check out by bashing their way through the walls? Ah, good, they’ve found the door. Surely they won’t trundle their bags all the way to the lift while others are sleeping? Oh.
10. Waiting in the rain for the shuttle bus to the terminal
There’s definitely a bus at 5.47am, madam. No, I’m afraid I don’t know where it is. We aren’t responsible for the buses. You’ll really have to take it up with the bus company.
11. Ordering a taxi because the bus hasn’t arrived, even though it’s only a mile to the airport, and you can actually see the terminal, but the runway is in the way
That’ll be £76 please, sir.