Earlier this summer, the message was clear, wasn’t it?! “Boost the economy, have a holiday!” trilled the headlines, as the government promoted air bridges between the UK and a host of overseas destinations.
After months of lockdown-induced damage to the nation’s finances, months of staring at the walls of our own houses, it felt like we were being given not only permission but outright encouragement to whip out our credit cards and book hotels, ferries, even flights.
I had mixed feelings.
On one hand, I was as sick as anyone of my own house. Yes, my garden is prettier than it’s ever been, but working and living in the same space from March to July had taken its inevitable toll. I was bored of the four walls.
Plus, my husband and I had been working throughout lockdown, and we were tired. We’d already cancelled several trips, including a big one for my fortieth birthday. Didn’t the whole family deserve a break?
On the other hand, a pandemic is a pandemic. Lockdown had been introduced for a reason, and that reason was to control the spread of the coronavirus. Even though the strict terms of the tightest lockdown had been eased, none of us wanted to be or to appear complacent or irresponsible.
We decided that flying, then, was not an option. Not only did the prospect of wearing a mask for the duration of the flight feel pretty unappealing (soggy cloth on your face for hours, anyone?!) but I also had The Fear about getting stranded miles from home if anything went wrong, and something about the recycled air and close proximity of other people — in the airport and on the plane — felt wrong.
In the end, we elected to drive to France and to stay for twelve days in an old, shabby gite in a remote village. A tame, sedate trip, the self-catering sort that we might’ve taken when the children were babies and would need early, quiet nights. The absolute safest option we could think of.
We booked the Eurotunnel between Kent and France. The Eurotunnel because we knew it to be social distancing at its travel-based finest: drive on, stay in your own car for the duration, drive off. Sorted.
Gite booked, Channel crossing reserved, we sat back and eagerly anticipated the upcoming holiday. We began slowly to pack. Periodically we said to each other, happily, “I can’t believe we’ll be getting some sun this year, after all!”.
The earliest misgivings
Our excitement didn’t last. On the 24th of July, following a surge in Spanish cases of the coronavirus, the UK government made a snap decision to impose a 14-day quarantine on anyone returning from Spain to the UK. With only four hours’ notice, no one who was in Spain already could beat the deadline. Suddenly huge crowds of British people, who’d been urged and encouraged to take a summer holiday, faced a job-threatening fortnight of quarantine on their return.
We were due to drive to France on 7th August, and our hearts sank at the news about Spain. The figures from France for Covid-19 cases in France were not painting the best picture. They were clearly rising, day by day, although they were far lower than they had been in Spain when quarantine was imposed (and crucially, they were vanishingly low in the region we were travelling to).
Obsessively checking the stats each day, we waited.
The day before we were due to leave, we had still not decided. Our bags were only half packed. And then, another government update: Belgium, the Bahamas and Andorra were going onto the quarantine list. This time, 30 hours’ notice was given.
The government, it seemed, had learned from its mistake with Spain and was at least attempting to allow a window of time during which holidaymakers could return and not be penalised by quarantine.
What to do?
We made a snap decision. Well, I made it, and my husband reluctantly agreed. We’d go to France as planned. Surely, I reasoned, there’d be no further updates to the quarantine list for another week? And coronavirus cases were steadying off; they were similar to those in the UK.
Plus, good relations between France and the UK are utterly crucial for trade and industry. It felt politically unlikely that a blanket quarantine would be introduced. We thought it far more likely that there would be some sort of quarantine restrictions on people arriving from Paris, where cases were soaring, rather than on every part of the country.
So we got in the car and drove to France.
The drive was smooth and uneventful. Five hundred and fifty miles, all in our own car, and 30 of them taking place under the English channel on a rattling freight-like train. We arrived to record-breaking temperatures and wall-to-wall sunshine kissing the fields of sunflowers and the roofs of the chateaux. It was utterly idyllic.
And it was even safer, I think, than being at home. Our gite had a walled garden and sat squatly in a tiny village with one boulangerie and one cafe, which we did not visit. We swam in remote lakes and walked on trails where we saw no-one. It was exactly as we had pictured. Our pasty English skin turned pink instantly.
But the news, flashed in daily updates onto our phone screens, spoiled the idyll somewhat. France’s coronavirus figures were not improving, and speculation mounted hour by hour about quarantine restrictions.
We talked about what would happen if we had to quarantine for two weeks on our return. Apart from incurring the wrath of the children (neither of whom wanted to miss their first day back in the classroom when schools reopen), we dreaded the impact on our lives.
We could work from home, but it would be awkward. I didn’t fancy telling my clients unavailable because I’d chosen to go on a jolly. I didn’t want to have to walk the dog in the dead of night, or have to give up on going running for the duration.
Practically, we decided, it would be a very difficult prospect. As a family, we all felt it would negate the beneficial effects of the holiday. So we had little choice but to keep a constant eye on the news and have the Eurotunnel website ready to load at a moment’s notice.
On Thursday evening, six days after arriving in France, things came to a head. Newspapers and news websites, having speculated all week, suddenly reported (with what appeared to be definitive certainty) that government decisions were going to be made that very day.
We checked and rechecked the government website. Nothing. By 8pm we’d finished dinner and we drank some wine, confident we wouldn’t have to drive anywhere in a hurry.
And then, at 11pm French time (10pm UK time), an update appeared. Quarantine was GO. From 4am on Saturday, anyone arriving in the UK from France would have to quarantine for 14 days. There it was, in black and white.
We had to move fast if we wanted to avoid the restrictions. I loaded the Eurotunnel website and logged into my account, but the site was like treacle; pages hung, reloaded, fizzed and dropped. It was torture. As we racked our wine-fogged brains to do the maths involved in working out how long we’d need to allow to get to the port, available train slots vanished one by one from the screen.
In the end, I booked one at 10pm on Friday night. This would allow us to get another night of sleep, pack up our things, and drive the 6 hours to the border without worrying too much about traffic delays, but it gave us a 7-hour window (allowing for the time difference) to get home before the quarantine began.
We paid an astronomical sum for the privilege of rearranging the Channel crossing, but no matter: it was done. And then, within 5 minutes, the Eurotunnel website crashed completely. I could not have been more relieved.
A race against time
The drive home, in the end, was surreal and anticlimactic. Every second car we passed on the wide, endless motorways through France bore a British registration plate. It felt like an exodus.
It wasn’t busy, though. The anticipated traffic delays did not happen. Despite tweets warning travellers not to arrive early at the check-in desk, the Eurotunnel staff allowed us without fuss or extra charge to rearrange our crossing from 10pm to 5:40pm. By 6pm UK time, we were battling snarls of traffic outside London, safe from the risk of quarantine.
Home again. Worth it?
The overall takeaway from all of us, now that we are home, is mixed. On one hand, we got six days in the sun, and that was blissful.
On the other, we were unable fully to switch off, or to turn off our phones. We felt at constant risk of having our holiday spoiled.
On one hand, we feel confident that our holiday was as safe as any foreign holiday could be; safer indeed than a break within the UK, in terms of social distancing and lack of interaction. On the other, we felt shamefaced as we joined the queues for the Eurotunnel, feeling obscurely reckless for taking a break that had — at the time we booked it — been pretty much urged upon us.
Would we go again?
My advice to anyone planning to travel under similar uncertain circumstances is simple: if in doubt, don’t. The panic I felt in the late-night scramble to rearrange our return journey was horrible.
If we had not been able to get back in time, and had therefore faced as a family 14 days of lockdown-like conditions, I’d have felt not only frustrated by the restrictions but also guilty, as though a trip to the European mainland had taken precedence over my social duty to “contain the virus” and protect my friends and neighbours from risk.
Ultimately, I think that the whole fiasco is another example of the British government’s rank incompetence and inability to manage anything to do with the coronavirus in any kind of effective way. It is also another example of the way that freedoms are urged upon us, but when they’re taken, we are blamed for any negative impact that results from the change.
In this, it mirrors the way that when lockdown restrictions were eased and pubs were urged to reopen, with huge headlines reminding us all to support our local businesses and get back into bars ordering drinks, it was suddenly the fault of the populace when all this government-sanctioned socialising led to an increase in coronavirus cases.
I basically think we were, despite our keenness not to be, puppets in a government experiment. I wish we hadn’t allowed our strings to be pulled in that way. (I accept I was more susceptible to the string-pulling than my husband was).
But that sun, and those lakes? They were lovely. So, y’know.