by Russell David
Why did I visit Austria? Why now? Here’s why: I’d been due to stay in Vienna (and Luxembourg) in 2020, having paid for non-refundable hotel rooms but had been forced to cancel (twice); both hotels said I could use the booking until the end of 2021. Little did I realise then that it wouldn’t be until 2021 was nearly over that a trip would be feasible. So I embarked on this three-night break because I sort of had to, and a few tweaks to the testing requirements meant that this was unlikely to be as much of an ordeal as my trip to Slovenia in September was.
It’s no surprise most people aren’t booking holidays at the moment. In the 10 days leading up to the flight I received five emails from Ryanair, four of which were identical, headed ESSENTIAL REMINDER FOR YOUR TRIP in bold, capital letters, red and underlined. A couple of lines down it said: “Failure to comply with local travel requirements may result in you being fined or denied boarding or entry into your destination.” That too was in bold and underlined. There was then reams of copy about the E.U. Digital Covid Travel Certificate, passenger locator forms, masks and tests, until it returned to its theme: “Failure to produce required forms/negative Covid test results may result in boarding/entry to your destination being denied and may also result in very expensive, on the spot fines.” By this point you’re thinking: “Christ, should I really have booked this holiday? Is it worth the pain and stress?”
It didn’t start too well. At the Ryanair departure gate at Stansted, already a whirlpool of anxiety and hassle thanks to the staff’s incessant cries of “are you double vaccinated?” and “your bag’s too big, you have to pay extra”, I was called forward, unmasked as ever, clutching my exemption letter from my GP, and came face-to-mask with, well, let’s call her Eva. She peered at my letter for a long time before drawing herself up.
“I’ve let you on this time,” she said with the imperiousness of the Empress of India, “but this is out of date”, and she pointed to “July 30th, 2021” on my letter.
I was rocked back on my heels. Why on earth would the date matter? I have the exemption largely because I can’t breathe properly in a mask because of a lung condition I had 20 years ago and will have for the rest of my life (and I also don’t like being a subservient drone who blindly accepts politically driven dubious science). I begged to disagree, and I also pointed out that these GP missives are £25 a pop.
“Yes, I realise that,” Eva said in a tone that suggested I’d just told her the planet we were standing on was called Earth, and then her body language said “Next” and she looked for a new victim.
“You’re wrong,” I couldn’t help grumbling as I walked away.
“I’m not,” she called after me.
“You are!” I said a little loudly.
Standing in a very non-socially distanced queue I checked on the web on my phone and I found this on Ryanair’s mask exemption policy:
If you have an exemption from wearing a mask, you must bring a signed doctor’s letter or a medical certificate (either in a printed or digital format). The certificate must state that you’re exempt from wearing a face mask but does not need to specify a medical reason for the exemption.
So no mention of a date required. Then I had the joy of meeting Eva again 10 minutes later as I went to board the plane, so I gently (no really, I was very nice) told her what I had just read. Apology? She should coco. Instead, she doubled down.
“This isn’t even from a GP or hospital,” she spat, clearly not being able to understand that the Heart of Bath Medical Practice is a GP practice and that it was signed by a doctor, with the names of five other doctors at the bottom of the letter.
“You’re wrong about that, too,” I snapped, my previously genial manner deserting me. “This is appalling. I’m reporting you.”
“You do that,” she sneered with unrepentant glee.
“Oh, I will,” I intoned as I joined yet another cattle queue to get on the plane. When every scald, every fishwife, every fishhusband, has been turbocharged by 20 months of state-sanctioned tyranny this is what you get. Anyway, the report’s in!
The flight itself was fine, despite the pressure pill she’d popped me slowly dissolving in my stomach as we crossed Europe. Disembarking in Vienna, though, my day got worse again.
At passport control, my naked face was once more proclaimed indecent as I was sent to one side to show my exemption letter to the meanest, scariest looking man I have seen in many a year. He was wearing what looked like army fatigues, had a shaved head and of course an industrial-strength mask (definitely with a scowl behind it). Some bloke in front of me was already getting big hassle over his NHS Covid certification. When my turn came, I nervously pushed my little letter forward.
He looked at it with as much disgust as if I had just expectorated a globule of bright green mucus into the palm of his hand. And then, of the document that been acceptable for easyJet and Slovenia, he snorted – and I’ll never forget this – “This is nothing!” He indicated that the letter didn’t provide enough details of my condition and didn’t have enough passport-type data on it.
I immediately reasoned that it would be unwise to adopt the airport tactics of Sexy Beast’s Don Logan. I also decided that to quip “Now I know why this country was the birthplace of Hitler!” would be unwise. I’m smart like that.
I meekly acquiesced and pulled my mask out of my jacket pocket and put it on. Being able to breathe properly and strong principles be damned when a bellicose airport skinhead stands before you. He said something I didn’t fully catch (something about a 250 Euros fine I think), so instinctively I pulled down my mask to say “Pardon?”
“Put the mask up!!!” he barked.
In retrospect, I’m surprised he allowed me to get away with my blue cloth mask, as FFP2 masks are now required everywhere in Vienna, (well, theatre is very popular here). I eventually had to buy one to enter the splendid Sigmund Freud Museum a couple of days later. They’re similar to cloth masks except even more difficult to breathe through and they rob you of perhaps another one-seventh of your humanity. Because you can’t breathe very well in them, you take bigger breaths in and out; you feel the breath jettisoning up past the bridge of your nose to your forehead, gently tickling your eyebrows. Perhaps it might ruffle your hair…
Essentially an admittance of the uselessness of cloth masks, FFP2 masks are compulsory for the unvaccinated and recommended for the vaccinated in shops and on public transport; if you break the rules it’s possible you could go to prison for three weeks. And you’d see fewer masks at a Johann Strauss masked ball than you would in modern-day Vienna. You almost expect to see dogs wearing them. Thankfully, and surprisingly, my hotel – the fabulous 25 Hours Hotel – didn’t require them for guests, but it did insist upon proof of vaccination or an antibody certificate or a PCR test. “They love their bureaucracy here,” said the doorman to the hotel’s rooftop bar as my papers were once again perused. Nice chap though, originally from Hampshire. Sadly the hotel’s spa wouldn’t open until two days after I left, because they’d only just got the green light from the Government, a receptionist told me. Screwy old thing, ‘the Science’.
Near my hotel there was a theatre with a series of talks titled The New Normal (a phrase uttered by Dominic Raab as early as April 2020, curiously enough). Surprising I know, but I didn’t attend: the Beethoven Museum in the leafy outskirts of the city was more appealing, although having my kneecaps removed without anaesthetic would be too.
Regarding masks, it is remarkable that despite an avalanche of evidence pointing to their very limited efficacy, especially outdoors, they are ubiquitous. I think the truth about masks and this virus will never come out – can never come out, because scores of governments have made their citizens wear them for almost two years now.
I understand how masks make one feel part of the team and like a good citizen, and being good feels good. The world can feel less threatening when you have a fabric cover over your face. I get that. But the psychological and social costs of this unprecedented behaviour on this scale for so long are unlikely to be small.
Interestingly enough there were very few masks on the tourist buses that I took around the city – we’d pull up beside a tram or bus full of disconsolate citizens gazing at us from their muzzled faces and I for one would feel jolly lucky and relatively free. Hooray for tourists!
The world has been gripped by extreme safetyism. As Jordan Peterson remarked on a recent podcast with John Anderson, if cars were invented now they’d probably make driving them illegal, such is the cost in human life. I hope Dr. Peterson would agree with me when I observe that because liberals tend to be higher in the trait of neuroticism – thus fearing disease more – and conservatives higher in orderliness, and with a lower disgust threshold – thus welcoming greater security and being more revolted by illness – it was a cinch to mask the world. Almost everyone, scared out of their wits by governments and the media, was on board.
Back to Vienna, which is a great, sophisticated city, make no mistake. Wandering around I didn’t notice any boarded-up shops that are now such a common sight in Britain. You have to prove you’re not a disease-riddled leper in many places, but not all – it keeps you on your toes. There’s a nauseating amount of traffic but the magnificent buildings are still beautifully clean: these monuments to the apogee of Western civilisation adorn the landscape. When it came to giving up their liberties, though, Austrians dispensed with them as fast as they did the schilling at the start of this century. Oh, Vienna! as Midge Ure once cried, presumably in anticipation of this state of affairs.
Waiting for my flight home at the departure gate, FFP2 masked up, natch, I heard an announcement from the next gate along for a Dublin flight: make sure you have your passenger locator forms, vaccination certificates and PCR test results to hand. PCR test results? My heart started thumping. What if – somehow – I’d misread the rules and I had needed to have done a test either before my holiday or during it? My palms sweated, my head ached. Thankfully it was a false alarm, and the first two things were enough. Just as well, as we had another Eva on departure gate duty.
Never in the field of human existence have so many people been given such a rotten time for the (perceived) benefit to so few. And when future historians look at the civil liberties grabs that ensued for a disease that has around a 0.3 infection fatality rate, whose average victim was 82.4 and had an average of 2.5 co-morbidities, they may be astonished. But imagine the freedoms we’d be robbed of if this was a disease with, say, a 0.5 infection fatality rate, whose average victim was 80.4 and had an average of just 1.3 co-morbidities.
I did what many tourists do and got a train from Vienna to Bratislava, about an hour’s journey. A la Schengen, there are no passport checks or anything and you’d never know you were passing into another country. And in terms of Covid-mania it’s pretty much the same as Austria: masks everywhere and vaccine passports to access most places, although I managed to visit a small museum and buy a ‘placka’ (potato pancake) from an outdoor food stall without getting asked for mine (which was not the case in Slovenia).
Bratislava is a canny little city with delightful remnants of the past like a castle and an old town – plus there’s an ‘erotic supermarket’! Down by the river there was a large open-air photography exhibition, much of which focused on the travails of the last couple of years, including grim shots of suffering patients and hassled doctors in grey-looking hospitals. There were also several shots of anti-lockdown protests in the city last October, which a caption informed us was orchestrated by “fascists, communists and football hooligans”. I wonder how correct that was.
I eventually climbed back up the hill to the train station and, looking into bus after bus of masked human beings, I couldn’t help but think it resembled some terrible footage of prisoners being carted off to some unspeakable detention centre for some undeclared crime, never to be seen again. Thankfully not this time. Then it was back to Vienna.
Find Russell David’s travel blog here.