My family arrived in the UK last week and here is what it has been like since our arrival.
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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?
This article’s about to get Acura’d hard.
That said, I almost tried a UK New Year, since fares a month ago were cheap, but I’m glad I decided against that. I’m an anxious guy so the extra steps is not worth my peace of mind. It’s a game of chance right now if you want int’l travel, flaky countries like the Netherlands locked down again for (so far) just a flu bro, in Omicron. And I’m not insane enough like Matthew to travel to places like South Africa in light of what’s going on.
Nicely written Kyle. I’m in England for Christmas also. Flew in last week. What you describe is pretty much my experience. Most of the populace seems to be treating it like rain, unpleasant but nothing one can do about it. Behave accordingly.
Matthew has valid reasons but this trip report is a series of bad judgment and bad behavior. Non-essential trips should be canceled for now. If you are “fully” vaccinated, you are really almost unvaccinated. If you have received a booster, you are worse off than the fully vaccinated were in early 2021 because omicron is able to evade the majority of people (about half) and able to cause hospitalization in about 10 times more people than the original Covid strain (80% vs. about 97% or 20% instead of 2-3%).
The pandemic has just begun, sad to say. Only about 25% of Americans have received 3 doses. Only about 9% of Canadian have.
Yeah, it’s amazing how large the disconnect is between the headlines and the on the ground reality these days.
My own anecdotal experience is similar. Was in Dubai last week, everything was crowded and masks were properly worn maybe 50% of the time. In the south of France now, same story.
What I also find interesting is the lack of document checks. Despite PCR tests being required they are rarely checked. Same with vaccine passports in places where they are supposedly required.
Politicians and officials can make whatever rules they want. But the people enforcing those rules really don’t seem to care anymore. Can you blame them? Low paid and overworked. Forced to be the muscle behind unpopular edicts they may not agree with. Yes, I still do all the proper paperwork and tests, and so should everyone else. But it’s fair to say actual enforcement and compliance is virtually non-existent.
There’s also almost zero way of knowing if a PCR test result is real. Or a vaccine passport. It’s all based on the honor system. Those of us who like rules follow them. Those who don’t won’t. It’s all pretty damn funny if you can look at it objectively.
And it’s certainly not an American thing. It’s just human nature.
Kyle, thanks for the excellent, first hand report. The observations you make as an experienced traveler are very helpful to read. Your information is to the point and absent the magnification in many of the media reports. Lucy is certainly growing like a weed!
I hope you and your family stay safe and may I wish you a wonderful holiday.
I have always found the UK health check at the border to be a joke (so quick and cursory), as well as the testing regime. Earlier this year I didn’t receive my day 2 test (which I had paid well over £100 for) until several days later and couldn’t get the vendor to help me register the rest once I did finally receive it. Eventually the NHS offered to send me texts free of charge. Then I saw that my local council had a mobile testing center outside my apartment so I just grabbed a couple of those and dropped them in the mail. All the while I was receiving annoying phone calls from the test and trace folx. One could easily have flouted quarantine rules. Masking on the Tube was far from universal.
I notice Kyle hasn’t said what his family’s vaccination status is.
Boris should be booted. What a sorry excuse for a Conservative. What was the point of leaving the EU if you are just going to implement the same idiotic, authoritarian policies?
When I flew Valencia-Madrid-Gatwick last month (two separate flights), there were no checks at all at the UK end but my documents were checked painstakingly at both VLC and MAD on departure.
Didn’t you have to have a day 0-2 PCR test and self quarantine until you got your results. This whole testing thing is getting very expensive!
good laugh. doom available on the newsstand! thanks for the report.
ignore those crickets.
Flew to Scotland last month for 3 days via AMS. Had to test for transit thru AMS !On arrival we had to go to a Health Gate to show paperwork and get Boarding pass stamped then onto gate to EDI!!On arrival to our Hotel in EDI we had Purple envelopes waiting for us to Test for Day 2via the National Health System.We had to order
, Register and Pre-pay to get our arrival paper!! It was over 60 pounds per person via the NHS. Before we could use the test kit we had to add to the registration -about another 6 more pages of data… We were not sure how long the results would take via the mail service(pre-paid envelope) SO we had to have a valid test for arrival back into the US for the next day so off we went to a local Pharmacy open on Sunday for another 48 pounds, Otherwise we saw everyone masked and Vaxxed on our walking tour and Glenfiddich tour and tasting. Too much paperwork and testing to go and to return,. In EDI we had to check-in with our negative tests and clear to board !At the airport in AMS we had to show all of our attestations at the gate and get a sticker.. Hindsight we needed to stay a day or 2 longer to enjoy a few days without looking for a Pharmacy Lab or ??
“Right Now” are the key words in your title. Much of what you write is what we’ve all been experiencing for some time traveling there lately, nothing new other than your perspective of being unvacinated. But if I was a betting man I would put money on BJ locking down the country on December 27th. He will avoid it through Christmas and Boxing Day but I suspect that will be it. There are already many cries within the Government to do it now.
I am glad you are enjoying your time in the UK.
As someone who lives here, this month has been just too cold (for me at least) to do much outdoors. While I am not concerned about getting seriously ill with COVID, I don’t see the attraction of going to enclosed spaces and worrying about whether my booster is good enough to avoid getting infected with Omicron or, worse still, the possibility of a positive PCR result ruining my plan to escape to warmer climes over the festive season.
Just for accuracy, the UK has never reached 100,00 Covid cases a day, let alone just omicron cases as your article reads. 100,000 may well be hit this week, but that will be all variants, not just omicron.
@Greg Trahar – Yes, correct. I will update the case. That said, cases last week jumped to as high as 92k. I do not have data on the variant responsible for those cases, but in the US we do and omicron has jumped from 3% of new cases to 73% (https://www.cnet.com/health/medical/omicron-responsible-for-73-of-covid-cases-in-the-us-cdc-data-shows/) with Delta firmly in second place now at about 26%.
You are factually correct both currently and when it was published that the UK does not yet have 100,000 new cases of COVID, but it’s close. And you’re also right that it’s not necessarily all omicron anyway, but if it is anything like the US, it likely is the majority.
I’ve had three doses of Moderna. I was supposed to leave on the 10th for Ireland, then London, and finally Paris. When the latest Covid restrictions ramped up, I cut London as I wasn’t willing to quarantine perhaps several days until the arrival test results came in. Any kind of quarantine on arrival is not acceptable to me—I’d rather stay home for free than be stuck in an expensive hotel room. As I was concerned what additional restrictions by Ireland or France might be implemented on very short notice, I canceled the trip and made last minute plans to go to the Caribbean.
My wife and I live in Birmingham, UK. We go about our daily lives for the most part. I think people are sick of being in lockdown and being told we can’t go anywhere or do anything. My job is considered essential (govt contractor) so I go to work every day like normal. We have to do a lateral flow test twice a week, alternating between M/W & M/F. If you get a positive lateral flow test, you’re supposed to stay home and get a PCR test. If that comes back negative, you can return to work the following day. We both just had our Moderna booster jabs yesterday, so we’ve each got 3 shots. We’ve been to the Xmas market a couple of times and it seemed business as usual. Some people were wearing masks, but most weren’t. They are calling the new lockdown measures “Plan C or B Plus” which isn’t much to be fair. Just goes back to making masks mandatory indoors and using your COVID pass to get into venues. Can’t see them going back into a full lockdown as they’d probably have a riot on their hands. Or at least I hope they don’t.
I flew from South Asia to UK on Saturday morning and the experience was very similar,
Pre departure – PCR test, book and pay for a day 2 test, complete the locator form with vaccination details.
I uploaded all of these details to the airline (Etihad) to get “Verified to Fly” which saved time at check in.
Boarding the second flight in Abu Dhabi they double checked the printed locator form.
I expected everything to be checked on arrival at Heathrow but no; there was automated passport control (UK, EU and some other passports), we walked through Customs but nobody checked the documents.
I did note that the queue for the UK etc automated passport checks was much longer than it used to be a few years ago, despite fewer people travelling and at least 20 of the gates working.
I can’t speak to the pubs etc as we are supposed to home quarantine until the results of the Day 2 PCR are received. But yes, I saw lots of airport workers without masks, but all passengers were properly masked.
Unless I missed it, weird not to see mention of the required quarantine until a negative Day Two test result is received. I think this is the most burdensome of the current regulations.
Of course, the quarantine is largely unenforceable as there’s very little capacity for Test and Trace staff to be checking up on recent arrivals.
Thanks for the report, Kyle. I have travel to the EU planned for March, and would appreciate more of these types of on-the-ground personal experience reports on traveling to or transiting the major airports, because what information you can find online often often seems garbled and inconsistent. Thanks also to Dee for the AMS report, because that is one of the airports I will be transiting through. FRA is another one, and I am also monitoring BRU and CDG, because of one adopts too many restrictions, I may change flights to connect through another. But I’d like to know what I would be getting into and a lot of other people probably feel the same way.
I am a little concerned about ability to get PCR tests done timely in some locations for the return, and as Dee notes, I think I need to leave a day or two at the end just to get the test, so hearing about actual experience would be helpful. Another thing is that I have gotten the COVD.be app, which shows my status (two shots and a booster and recovered from COVID) and wonder if it is valid everywhere in the EU for entering venues – online info seems inconsistent.
I’m leaving the UK in about 8 hours. Arrived last week. Entry was as you described – test before you depart, PCR test before day 2 and quarantine until results come back. A negative test a few hours ago to fly back to the US. Most people have been jabbed 2 or 3 times here. I think most of the the UK us over being told what to do but are cautious and respect the law. I’m supposed to be back in January — it’ll be interesting to see if anything changes given the rumors of a post Christmas lock down.
and yay …. the Polaris lounge in Terminal 2 is open again …. Yay !!!