Those who had holidays booked as the COVID crisis began to escalate were faced with a difficult decision: to go ahead with their plans and risk getting sick or stranded, or give up their hard-earned holidays and take the financial hit. But for some, the situation was out of their control, as they were already abroad by the time the health crisis had become a serious issue. With panic starting, misinformation spreading and lockdown looming, they faced a ticking clock to get back to the UK before it was too late…
“We felt desperate and could not see a way out,” Pete tells me. “We’d heard that Russian newspapers were blaming COVID on British tourists deliberately spreading the virus around the world, and you could tell that people just wanted us to go away.”
Pete and his wife Karen have been visiting Goa in India, for sixteen years, but this was the first time they had ever felt unsafe in the area. Chemists and shops had denied them entry, local residents had crossed the street to avoid them and the man they had hired a motorbike from had informed them they could no longer use it. “He told us that it would be him that got the beating from the police if we got stopped as he was the registered owner,” Pete explains. Unable to get food or medicine without a lengthy journey on foot, and unsure whether they would even be granted access on arrival, they made the difficult decision to cut their trip short and return to the UK as soon as possible.
It was a situation thousands of Brits found themselves in as the true impact of the COVID crisis became apparent. But with the entire world in a state of shock, unsure of what was safe, getting back home wasn’t going to be easy. “We’d tried to get flights for two weeks prior to lockdown, but they were only available from Mumbai Airport, which was several hundred miles away,” Pete remembers. Unable to get transport, this was not an option for the couple, but the Qatar Airways website listed an office located fifteen miles away from where they were staying: “When we finally got to the office there was a note on the shutter door saying that they had moved several years previous.”
Rob and Marie also found themselves in Goa as lockdown measures came into effect. Having been there since early January, they monitored the situation closely before deciding to cut their four-month trip short. “We discovered that our return flight had been removed,” Marie describes, “but no notification had been sent to us.” They managed to book tickets on another flight with Air India, only for that to be cancelled too. “By this time we were beginning to panic,” she explains, “but we finally managed to book a third flight back to London via Qatar.”
We’d heard that Russian newspapers were blaming COVID on British tourists deliberately spreading the virus around the world, and you could tell that people just wanted us to go away
Pete and Karen were less fortunate however. Having contacted the World Health Organisation, they were sent a digital form to complete that required their National Insurance numbers as well as the use of a computer. “I was told that I could complete the form on my phone, only to find out that wasn’t true,” Pete recalls. “And how many people know their National Insurance number while on holiday?” After enlisting the help of their son back home, the forms were eventually completed, but the situation still remained unclear, as their place on any potential flight couldn’t be guaranteed. “We just felt that we’d be refused a flight because there was so much uncertainty,” he says. “We felt so much stress, hopelessness, embarrassment and anger.” And even if they could get a flight, they still had no way of getting to the airport: “The internet was full of people in the same boat as us,” Pete says, “Taxis could only travel with a police pass, which we didn’t have.”
Todd Franklin was in the last two weeks of a seven-month working holiday in New Zealand, along with his partner and a friend, when the COVID crisis first started to escalate. “The NZ Government had been so good that things didn’t seem to really affect people that much,” he tells me. “We were keeping up to date with the reaction back in the UK and it just seemed laughable in comparison.” That all changed, however, when the announcement was made that the country would be going into lockdown within 48 hours. “That’s when shit got real for us,” he remembers.
Making the decision to leave the house in which they’d been staying, they checked in to a hotel in Auckland. “We decided to book it for two weeks,” Todd says, “there weren’t any cheaper options, so we just had to suck it up.” As was the case all over the world, the biggest problems arose from the lack of information, as well as the constant risk of flights being abandoned. “People were spending thousands of pounds on flights that were getting cancelled,” he remembers, “we only had enough on my credit card to book one flight home, so we had to make it count.”
With time and money running out, they knew they had to get a flight back to the UK as soon as feasibly possible. “There was no cash flow,” Todd says. “The only hot meals we could have were Asian noodles with boiling water, but that soon got too unhealthy.” Making the decision to email Lillian Greenwood, their local MP back in Nottingham, they finally had a breakthrough. “She was great,” Todd explains, “she immediately emailed me back to say that she had put our concerns up the Governmental chain to add more pressure.”
We were issued with two litres of water and a can of coke and told it would have to last the entire flight
Ten days into their two-week hotel stay, Todd finally managed to book a flight home. “There was still some weariness from us though,” he recalls, “not until the wheels of the plane had left the tarmac could I be certain that we were leaving.”
After being told that their flight had again been cancelled, Rob and Marie were to discover that it had, in fact, just been oversold, and they were the unlucky ones missing out. “The airport was utter chaos,” Marie recollects, “We managed to get ourselves on a flight the next day, which was then cancelled again.” With desperation setting in, and the Indian lockdown just eight hours away, they refused to move from the desk until they were given a seat on a plane. “They eventually let us check in,” she tells me, “but there were at least fifty people left behind.” Their flight took off just thirty minutes before lockdown began.
After the rigmarole of booking a seat, stranded Brits were soon to find that the flights themselves were as bizarre as getting on them had proved difficult. As Marie says, “It was a very strange experience. No one on the plane was speaking – it was just a silent flight.” Having finally managed to get themselves on a flight home, Pete and Karen found the flight equally odd, “We were issued with two litres of water and a can of coke and told it would have to last the entire flight,” Pete remembers, “Even the toilet paper in the cubicle ran out and they refused to replace it.”
Fortunately, all three parties made it back to the UK safely, although that wasn’t where their problems ended: “We were told that only people from our household could collect us from the airport,” Pete tells me, “But that wasn’t possible, so we had to pay £127 for a taxi.” But for Rob and Marie, the price of travelling back paled in comparison with the feeling of arriving safely in the UK: “We felt lucky to be home, but strange because we arrived back the day before Boris announced the UK was going into lockdown,” Marie remembers. “We just lived in the hope that we had made it through virus-free. To date we still consider ourselves very lucky.”