My family arrived in the UK last week and here is what it has been like since our arrival.
This post is based on my personal experience traveling in the UK over the last week. Some of my experiences may be different than what’s expected or elsewhere reported. My observations are my own and while they are purely anecdotal, I hope that this offers some insight through my eyes for those who are curious and not traveling to the UK right now.
Arrival Into The UK Under COVID Protocols, Omicron
Flying into the UK requires a certain amount of preparation. In another post, I will walk through the various guidelines for both arrival preparations and the testing protocol for vaccinated, unvaccinated, and minors but in this post I will keep things simple.
We submitted our required documents including a negative COVID-19 result, and the tracking for our ordered tests to be completed upon arrival. This gave us a document we were able to carry with us to the check-in counter at our departing airport. A “Eulen” (third-party contractor) employee looked at the documents, didn’t check them for more than a second, and didn’t match them to our IDs. The document looked like a printed word form with capital letters in some areas and that was about it.
The contractor handed us a re-used scrap of paper (ours had been used to the point that the corners were heavily folded, and there was other people’s handwriting all over them) which we handed to our check-in agent at the airport. This was the only time we presented documentation during our journey. I’m not exactly a germaphobe, but given that the scraps were to indicate we had been vetted for health-related entry concerns, this seemed to be a poor idea generally (how expensive would it be to not re-use the same scraps?)
Upon arrival in London, we, like others in the immigration line at Heathrow faced an HM Customs and Border Patrol agent. He stood to be able to see our daughter who is not tall enough to be visible from his seated position. He asked us the purpose of our visit, intentions in the country and waved us through. We had our documents in hand but they were never requested.
We were shocked that despite the omicron variant becoming a particularly significant public health issue in the UK, those documents were evaluated neither in the United States nor in the UK.
Endless COVID Testing
All travelers, even those that are fully vaccinated with any of a number of COVID-19 vaccines as well as booster shots are required to submit to pre-arrival SARS COV-2 testing prior to arrival (within 48 hours of flight departure) as well as two days following the arrival day. For vaccinated people, this is potentially where the testing ends, children under 12 remain on this same schedule at the time of publication.
For the unvaccinated, a similar schedule follows with another test on Day 8 following the arrival date. Those who wish to “test to release” face another test on the fifth day following arrival. During a ten-day trip from the US, returning to the US, a vaccinated traveler would have to take three tests, and unvaccinated travelers 4-5 depending on whether or not they want to be able to leave their hotel.
The cost of those test kits is advertised at £15 each, but the cheapest that we could source was a £54 single test delivered to the hotel and submitted via a prepaid envelope to the testing center via Royal Mail.
What I Am Seeing
There were (and still are) terrifying headlines focused on the South African-discovered coronavirus variant that warranted an emergency meeting from the World Health Organization (WHO.) Following its discovery in South Africa, omicron has surged and the number of cases in the UK for all cases now approaches one hundred thousand daily new infections. Vaccination and boosters have been inconsistent in preventing omicron from early reports. The Delta variant still appears to be the chief challenge to immune systems leading for hospitalizations and deaths. Some reports have suggested that omicron is milder, others counter that and it may simply be too early to tell one way or another. Reports in the US this week have showed that omicron has already moved from 3% of infections to 73% of all new infections in the US this week; UK data was unavailable but likely similar.
Regardless of the headlines, people in the UK, are just going about their lives. On the London Underground, mask policy is enforced by other passengers more than staff members. Signs are everywhere that remind travelers that not all passengers are required to wear face masks and that some health concerns are invisible.
On mainline trains, some were wearing masks, some were social distancing but this was more down to the ability to stretch out about the train coach and less about safety from my viewpoint.
Taxis and Ubers seem to follow masking policies as they do in the US.
From December 15th, large venues that fit certain criteria were required to check for a vaccine passport. That criteria included venues open between 1-5 AM that serve alcohol, and have a dance floor or live music stage. Those that fall under this requirement must check that passport (a QR code) but only during the hours in question. Unvaccinated persons can enter the same venues at 12:59 AM and stay until whenever close may be without presenting the QR code.
Restaurants and Pubs
Restaurants and pubs were well attended in our experience. We didn’t have to wait for a table, though some venues required a reservation to space out the time visitors would arrive, and there was a limit in some cases as to how long guests could occupy a table. “Mad Friday” is the Friday prior to Christmas Eve and marks the time when many Britons start their holiday leave and occupy the bars and shops. Reports stated that bars were “quiet” but we attended a venue, Escape to Freight Island, and it was very full.
Most are maskless but there is hand sanitizer everywhere. Crowds were large throughout the city center of Manchester less so just a few blocks outside of town. Regent Street in London was busy as was Carnaby but other sites like Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus were the least busy I can recall seeing them.
Britain is on a “work from home” order though many of the places I mentioned are tourist sites anyway. For what it’s worth, we were in London on a weekday so it might not have generally been a good measure. Manchester gave us a broader view. Road traffic was lighter throughout the week, and there were few lines in stores but it seemed as crowded as it ever was.
Masks seem to be at the ready, but only worn by employees indoors, and there’s no intentional effort to social distance.
People we encountered were in good spirits and seemed numb to the catastrophic doom available on newsstands everywhere.
Outside of Parliament in London, a group against vaccine passports and mandates were making their voices heard. This was the extent of any disruptions we saw though others had turned up according to local news. News broke late Friday night that a much more severe lockdown after the holidays was in the works and will likely drive further tension.
Traveling in the UK is more or less normal outside of the extensive entry requirements. While the country is mostly vaccinated and nearly half the population has had boosters, Omicron continues to infect. The NHS hasn’t, to this point, turned away any patients. Life was more or less normal in the UK, festive even ahead of the Christmas holiday.
What do you think? Have you recently traveled to the UK? Do my observations meet your expectations?