July was an unusual month, and it was almost as if the good times were rolling again. I took three flights within the calendar month, which would not have been unusual up to 2019. But the madness that has gripped the world since the emergence of a new, albeit relatively innocuous, virus from China in 2019 has grounded planes, closed airports, kept families apart and had people glued to computer screens for everything from online shopping to delivering keynotes at major international conference.
I had already taken a few flights this year to Slovenia and Italy which may be classified under different degrees of nightmare with Passenger Locator Forms, uploading Covid vaccination status or Covid test documents, having to wear masks for several hours on planes and then running the gauntlet of the mask police in various countries. Things have improved but vestiges of the Covid regime persist everywhere, either in relation to flying or within countries. The United Kingdom, apart from continued stupidity in hospitals over face masks, is an outlier with respect to Covid regulations along with Ireland, to which I have also flown.
July found me in Genoa, Lisbon and Nashville and each experience was different. Italy, with regard to flying, has seen the light and abandoned the necessity to prove Covid vaccination status, take a Covid test or—hallelujah—wear a face mask on planes, airports or in public buildings. But the traveller must be wary as masks are a requirement on public transport within Italy. My observation is that they are an absolute requirement on buses: no mask no ride. Taxi drivers wear them ubiquitously but never enforce wearing by passengers and on trains nobody seems to enforce them any longer as I went maskless between Turin and Genoa in both directions. However, masks remain very much in evidence as Italians love wearing them and students and staff nearly all continued to wear them at the university where I was teaching.
Courtesy of Cathay Pacific and the environment-crushing number of One World airmiles (in the millions) I have accrued over the years, I booked a long weekend through British Airways in Lisbon with my wife. I was happy to note that Portugal had abandoned all Covid related requirements for flights and entry. But no sooner was the outward flight booked, and British Airways cancelled it and we were routed with Iberia through Madrid, which was extremely bad news. Spain does not allow the unvaccinated to enter but allows the unclean such as my wife and me (both now classified as ‘unvaccinated’ by the Spanish authorities) to transit without a test. But it is hard to describe our dismay at the fact – largely unknown – that the Spanish authorities mandate wearing face masks on all flights into and out of Spain.
At least we had a direct flight back to London from Lisbon. But British Airways also cancelled the return flight. A few frantic phone calls to Hong Kong later and we had flights back to London, but through Madrid with Iberia again. Nevertheless, if we stretched the Iberian hospitality in business class out long enough, we could spend most of the flight without a mask and on the flight from Madrid to London, once the pilot announced we were over Bilboa – and out of Spanish air space – I removed mine and was not asked to put it on again.
All was not well in Portugal, however. Despite some good sense over entry to the country, like Italy, it has retained mask-wearing on public transport. This included the famous elevator up to a viewing point. Approaching the elevator, the operator (let’s call him Adolf) made the irritating cupped hand over the mouth sign indicating that we should mask up. We continued to approach whilst fishing a couple of old masks out of our pockets. He started to shout at us to go away but calmed down once our masks were on. He continued ranting on the elevator about where to stand and where to sit and what not to touch. Once the elevator journey was over – bearing in mind that it takes approximately 15 seconds – my wife was less than impressed as I goose-stepped off saying “Heil Hitler”. Masks were also enforced on the famous trams but, incredibly, they had open windows and the wind blew through freely. Again, we found that even to approach the tram without a mask was to be shouted at by the operative, in this case a young woman (let’s call her Eva). This time it was my wife’s turn to get stroppy. Some expletives were exchanged, and we decided eventually just to get off and see Lisbon on foot.
Finally, I visited Nashville for a conference. It was a joy to take a long-haul flight without the need for masks in-flight or at the airports. The United States does, however, require proof of vaccination status or proof of exemption which must be uploaded and approved prior to checking in online. You must also complete an attestation form to say you do not have Covid symptoms or have been in contact with anyone who has Covid (how would you know?). The remarkable thing is that while I am no longer considered vaccinated in Europe – I had two shots of the AstraZeneca vaccine early in 2021 – this was adequate proof that I had complied to allow me to enter the United States. Confused? I certainly was.
Dr. Roger Watson is Academic Dean of Nursing at Southwest Medical University, China. He has a PhD in biochemistry.