Stuart Forster explores the idea of travelling safely in the COVID-19 pandemic.
In mid-August, I travelled to Latvia, my first international trip since the coronavirus lockdown. Though keen to experience the destination, I was inevitably unsure as to whether international travel would be safe and enjoyable in light of the global pandemic.
Prior to the trip, I weighed up the risks likely to be encountered while travelling and asked myself some searching questions.
Would I run an additional risk of COVID-19 infection while using public transport in the United Kingdom? Was my airport hotel likely to present risks? I also looked at expert opinions on whether it is safe to fly during this time of coronavirus pandemic.
The coronavirus lockdown for a travel writer
Government advice is to avoid all but essential travel. When writing about travel provides the mainstay of your income there comes a point when it becomes a necessity.
The COVID-19 pandemic and resultant lockdown resulted in a challenging few months for people and businesses around the world.
Professionally, the lockdown ushered in the start of a barren time for me as a travel writer. After initial uncertainty commissioned features and planned trips were postponed or cancelled. Regular work ceased and my income dropped markedly.
In mid-March, I returned home from an aborted cruise that would have taken me to northern Norway. While crossing the North Sea, Norwegian ports closed to cruise ships as part of the Nordic nation’s response to the global health emergency.
I’d been out of the United Kingdom for just five days but on returning it felt like a different place — almost a subdued mirror world of the place I’d left.
The dearth of opportunities to write and earn a living over the months that followed meant I was keen to get back on the road. I agreed to participate in the proposed trip to Latvia as it’s a destination I’ve previously enjoyed visiting and the trip promised a wealth of new material.
Is international travel riskier than staying at home?
My view is that nobody should be judged for the decisions that they make regarding travel at present.
Some of us need to do it because it’s our profession.
For others, getting away after months of being cooped up at home is essential for the sake of mental health and wellbeing.
Ultimately, I think that people need to assess the risks of COVID-19 infection based on their personal circumstances and, after weighing things up, act responsibly.
If people take steps to minimise exposure to risks while following government guidelines and respecting local regulations then that, surely, is fine?
Of course, even staying local is not without risks.
I’ve had a stranger reach across me in a supermarket, impatiently ignoring social distancing guidelines, to take an item from a shelf while I stood waiting for the person ahead to move on.
Directional markers have been introduced on pavements in central Newcastle yet there are still plenty of pedestrians who fail to comply, resulting in close encounters of an uncomfortable kind.
UK travel in the era of the coronavirus
One of my key concerns while booking travel from Newcastle to Gatwick Airport was a desire to avoid the London rush hour. I selected my travel times accordingly.
In response to the pandemic, rail operator LNER has made seat reservations mandatory on journeys between Newcastle and London King’s Cross. On the journeys that I undertook passengers were spaced throughout the carriage, not seated side by side. That said, heading north I was seated at a table directly opposite a fellow traveller.
On entering Newcastle Central Station, I noticed a sign stating that face coverings must be worn. In line with UK government guidelines regarding the use of face coverings, the overwhelming majority of people complied. It’s worth remembering, though, that some adults are exempt from wearing face coverings.
On reaching my allocated seat I used antibacterial wipes that I’d packed to clean the arms and seatback in front of me. Paranoia? Perhaps but I think it’s good to be cautious at present.
Announcements reminded passengers to cover their noses and mouths.
Staying at an airport hotel
I reserved pre-flight accommodation at Gatwick’s North Terminal Premier Inn.
Hand sanitising gel was available from dispensers at the entrance and throughout public areas. A member of staff checked me in from behind a Perspex screen.
Items deemed non-essential had been removed from the guestroom. A printed A4 sheet provided reassurances of measures being taken to ensure guests’ safety in light of the pandemic.
The bedroom looked clean. Nonetheless, I felt compelled to wipe down the desktop, light switches and television remote control with antibacterial wipes.
I booked a table for breakfast in the hotel dining room, where a one-way system now operates. Table service has replaced the breakfast buffet. A server brought a cup to the table. I was instructed to serve myself from the coffee machine and, should I want it, make my own toast.
Could the hotel and its staff had done anything more to reassure me they doing everything realistic possible to minimise transmission of the virus? No, I think they did an outstanding job.
Air travel during the COVID-19 pandemic
Gatwick Airport was surprisingly quiet. Dropping my bag at the Air Baltic check-in desk took just a couple of minutes.
Sanitising gel dispensers were placed throughout the airport.
The cabin crew were, as I’d expected, wearing face coverings. One of them offered me an in-flight magazine as I stepped aboard. “We kindly ask you to act responsibly and take this free personal copy with you,“ was printed in capitals on the publication’s cover.
I was also given a pack with a face covering and sanitising wipes on entering the aircraft. I used the wipes to disinfect the surfaces around my seat.
Reassuringly, the seat between myself and the nearest passenger to me had been left empty.
A crew member collected the declaration form that Latvia requires arrivals to fill because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the road in Latvia
A face covering was mandatory at Riga International Airport. Elsewhere in Latvia, I was not required to wear one.
Life felt pleasantly normal in Latvia. Measures to control the transmission of the virus mean that the country’s infection rate has remained impressively low.
Hand sanitiser dispensers were ubiquitous at tourism attractions and restaurants. People in the Latgale region, where I spent the majority of my time, seemed to have no problem respecting social distances. I also spent one night in Riga.
Some restrictions were in place to limit capacity in restaurants.
At Aglona, whose basilica attracts pilgrims each 15th of August to celebrate the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, access was by invitation only. Normally around 300,000 people attend.
Had my trip been planned a week later it simply would not have happened. Two days into my trip it was announced that Latvia required arrivals from the UK to self-isolate (because the UK’s incidence of COVID-19 cases had risen above 16 per 100,000 of the population).
Latvia’s entry requirements for travellers are published on the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office website.
Despite coming from a country with a far higher COVID-19 infection rate than Latvia I was made to feel very welcome.
I’m pleased I travelled when I did. It felt a privilege to be on the road and a joy to be doing my job again.
Back on the ground in Britain
Prior to flying back to Gatwick, I had to fill out the UK’s Passenger Locator Form. The electronic form has to be completed not more than 48 hours before returning to the country.
I downloaded the form to my phone, as requested, but nobody checked it on arrival at Gatwick.
Despite floor markings, social distancing was not being enforced as I queued to go through passport control. Rightly or wrongly, re-entering the country felt the riskiest and most uncomfortable moment of my trip.
Though I was not unduly worried for most of my first international trip following the lockdown, COVID-19 remains a risk and continues to impact travel plans.
We can take steps to limit our exposure to risk and hopefully avoid being infected with the coronavirus. However, that can’t be guaranteed wherever we are.
Quarantine requirements relating to both outbound and inbound travel seem set to fluctuate as infection rates rise and fall.
More than ever, international travel feels like a privilege to cherish while it’s possible. I’ll be embracing it again as soon as I can.
Thanks for reading this post about travelling safely during the coronavirus pandemic. Have you travelled internationally since the lockdown or had holiday plans cancelled? You’re welcome to share your experiences in the comments field below.
Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.
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