I have just undergone another month of air travel visiting four countries and it continues to be a confusing morass of Covid-related regulations. My overriding impression is that some countries and, notably, one airline just cannot let go. I have experienced the complete range of restrictions from no restrictions (this simply used to be called ‘flying’) through the tyranny of enforced wearing of face masks and Covid testing to the requirement to provide proof of Covid vaccine status.
The only frisson of Covid related anxiety I had on a recent visit to Croatia with my wife was when a message came from our driver before we left the U.K. that we would be required to wear a face mask in the car. However, when we arrived at Zagreb airport, he was there maskless and did not ask us to wear one. Our best guess is that this had been an automated message from Booking.com that had not been deactivated since the days of Covid tyranny. Given that this was Croatia, that message must have been extremely dated.
Croatia was one of the most liberal countries throughout the days of Covid, and dropped all Covid related entry requirements early this year, but you must experience it to believe it. For entry, no vaccine passports are required, no Covid tests are required and there are absolutely no Covid-related restrictions within the country. Moreover, unlike the U.K., there is almost no sign that there ever was a Covid ‘crisis’. At the gym we used there was just one old Covid sticker on the door and in some restaurants there remained some remnants related to recommendations for social distancing, and that was it. Full marks to Croatia from us.
I had to take a Covid test before flying to Spain. This was not checked on entry to Spain, but British Airways required the proof to be uploaded to their website prior to checking in online. I was at an international conference and I asked delegates from Australia, the USA, Canada, Hong Kong and Scandinavia if their airlines had required proof of vaccination status prior to checking in and none had. Nor had they been aware of the need for a Covid test, and nobody had been asked to provide proof on entry. It really is time that British Airways, and we British generally, stopped kowtowing to other countries, especially ones which cannot be bothered to enforce their own regulations.
There was no mention of having to wear a mask on the flights in and out of Spain on the relevant section of the travel advice website, unlike when I passed through earlier in the year. But Iberia, which for some reason crewed the British Airways plane I took to Barcelona, insisted. Delegates at the conference also verified that other airlines had not insisted on face masks on flights into Spain. Face masks were still required on public transport, but my taxi driver was maskless and did not insist I wore one. I noticed on passing trains and buses that people were not wearing masks, so I assumed that this requirement was largely being ignored. During the week of my visit Spain lifted all Covid-related requirements in the country and for travel in and out of the country.
Happy days until I was boarding the flight home to London when the Iberia staff manning the boarding gate announced that it was a Government requirement that face masks were to be worn on the flight. Some of the staff at the gate were asking people to produce face masks before they would let them scan their boarding pass; I was not asked. The flight was being operated by British Airways and when we boarded the plane, none of the staff was wearing a mask and were actively telling people that they did not have to wear them. Full marks for British Airways on that point and nil points to Iberia. Spain scores five out of 10 given that they were still insisting on restrictions on the way in and clearly had not distributed the memo widely enough about their being lifted. It will be worth keeping an eye on Iberia as the months pass.
Nothing has changed since my visit to the USA in August where proof of a vaccine passport is still required for entry. It seems to be devolved to the airlines to enforce this as you are not allowed to check in until you have completed and uploaded an attestation form (‘I do not have Covid’ – tick!) and a PDF of your vaccine passport. Nobody asks for any proof at U.S. immigration. Once again, I say: it really is time that British Airways, and we British generally, stopped kowtowing to other countries. It is worth noting that any two doses of an approved vaccine will suffice and taken at any time which means that my non-boosted AstraZeneca vaccines of early 2021 are recognised. These shots did not protect me at the time and even if they had any benefit at that point they will be of absolutely no benefit now. My impression is that this is an exercise in box-ticking to demonstrate the traveller’s compliance with the Covid regime.
Apart from hand sanitisers – these have always been quite prominent in germophobic America – there was absolutely no other indication of the Covid regime. Some people continue to wear face masks and, as I was at a nursing conference, some masks were in evidence. There was no compulsion to wear face masks and it was refreshing to have several conversations with unmasked colleagues, mainly of a Republican persuasion, about how ridiculous face masks were and what harm lockdowns had done to our economies. The only blot on the USA landscape was that to attend gala events at the conference the organisation – the American Academy of Nursing (AAN) – insisted that attendees prove vaccination status before they collected the tickets. These tickets were $200 a head, had been purchased months in advance and had a ‘no refund’ message clearly associated with them. The AAN provided a link for uploading CDC proof of vaccination and non-U.S. citizens could show any other valid proof on the day of collection. Frankly, and much to her credit, the young lady at the desk would have accepted my Tesco card, all she wanted was to ‘see something’. It is much more pleasurable flying out of the USA than flying in these days as nothing Covid related is required for boarding to the U.K. Zero out of 10 for the USA for continuing to require proof of vaccination status and they will continue to get zero out of 10 next year if, as they say they will, they maintain proof of vaccine status for entry through 2023.
Prior to travelling to Italy, I encountered some Italian colleagues in Spain who assured me that all Covid related restrictions had been lifted inside the country. On my previous visit, unlike the one before that and the one before that, all restrictions related to entry had already been abandoned. I was keen to put the new freedom to the test. Miraculously, it is true. No Covid tests, no Covid vaccines and no masks required anywhere. Given that these are early days and, with the propensity of the Italians to declare a health crisis at the first sign of the sniffles, seven out of ten to Italy.
I hope this is the last time I write here about travel. While I intend to keep travelling, I hope that the USA will have seen sense and dropped its Covid requirements, but I doubt that will happen until the GOP return a President to the White House. I see no hope of China ever relaxing its entry requirements as Xi Jinping seems to be having too much fun inflicting arbitrary lockdowns on its population.
However, while other countries I have visited recently, even the ones that still require or only recently required Covid restrictions, seem relatively unscarred physically from the ‘pandemic’, it is embarrassing to see the mess of our pavements and buildings in the U.K. with indelible Covid warning stickers, shop doors still displaying face mask and social distancing stickers that seem impossible to remove (I have tried). Likewise in public buildings and especially in toilets, similar signs that are impossible to remove (I have tried). The floors of Heathrow airport and the taxi ranks there are still festooned with ‘Stand Here’ stickers two metres apart. They may be ignored now, but they are still there.
The expense, the effort, the induced fear and the pillorying of people who stood too close, did not wear a face mask or who refused to be vaccinated, and the anxiety that this might all happen again – the question I hope every politician, public health official and general busybody who inflicted the economic and social disaster that was 2020-2021 on us is asking is: Was it worth it?
Dr. Roger Watson is Academic Dean of Nursing at Southwest Medical University, China. He has a PhD in biochemistry.