On June 15, Iceland re-opened its borders to incoming tourists from the EU and Schengen Zone, as well as 15 epidemiologically-safe nations in-line with EU recommendations. A month on, Uwern Jong travelled to the land of ice and fire, his first trip abroad since lockdown in March. Here, he reports on how the country’s Covid-19 airport testing protocols work for arriving passengers.
Iceland has been long on my bucket list, but for some reason fate had always got in the way. In fact, the first time I had it slated for a visit, was back in 2010 when I started OutThere magazine.
With its long liberal history and spectacular natural wonders, Iceland had always been front of mind, but in the same year, the unpronounceable volcano, Eyjafjallajökull erupted, causing travel chaos in the mid and north Atlantic. This year, I had a trip booked to Iceland in April, but then Covid reared its ugly head.
Determined not to be beaten, I rebooked as soon as the country re-opened to travellers in June; with a month clear to let the authorities trial its innovative track and-trace system. As expected, there were some teething problems in the early days, but a couple of weeks in, the country’s government, via their tourist board, proudly proclaimed that the system was up and running and Iceland was open for business.
Booking with Abercrombie and Kent, I was advised of the protocol for entry. It all starts 72 hours before departure. The first and most important, the thing was to ensure I had no symptoms – even if I had a sniffle, I was to question whether or not I was fit to travel – it was my responsibility to my fellow travellers.
Then I had to head to the country’s new website for “pre-registration for visiting Iceland“. It’s a simple procedure, much like submitting an ESTA for travel to the US.
Firstly, I had to declare that I was free of symptoms for 48 hours, or not been within two metres of anyone that had symptoms. And if I was brazen enough to lie, I could be denied testing on arrival and placed into quarantine in accordance with the Act on Health Security and Communicable Diseases.
The rest of the form was pretty straightforward, all based on your mobile phone number (and not your passport, as one would think) and basically, you agree to download the “Rakning C-19” app that will assist the government with tracing, should I be diagnosed as positive, or should I come in contact with anyone that is, during my time in the country. Other information, such as full details of where I was staying and the length of stay was also important – I will explain why later.Then, I was faced with a choice – I could travel and quarantine in Iceland for 14 days, or I could pay to have a test on arrival. I didn’t have to make my decision there and then, but if I did, the test would only cost ISK9,000 (just over £50) but if I opted to purchase the test on arrival, it would cost ISK11,000 (around £65).
It was a no brainer for me, I didn’t want to quarantine, nor did I want to spend any more money, so I opted to pay upfront, and on completion, a QR code was both emailed and sent to my mobile phone. Simple enough, and while I had no trepidation about this trip, this process made me even more confident about how Iceland was dealing with the disease.
My flight on British Airways from London Heathrow to Iceland’s Keflavik airport went very smoothly – from contactless service in the Galleries First Lounge, to socially distanced seating onboard, complete with a snack pack that I wouldn’t have received in normal times.
The aircraft wasn’t fully loaded – it’s interesting to see that even with confident C-19-spread prevention measures in place, travellers were not flocking to the destination. Iceland’s Keflavik airport on a good day processes an average of 40,000 arrivals including transit passengers, with around 30 per cent entering the country. Post-Covid, this average has fallen to just 1,500 entries.
On arrival, we were told to wait in our seats until our row was called, and de-planing was done row-by-row, which eased the flow of travellers into the terminal. Once through passport control (at gate for non-Schengen arrivals), we moved into the arrivals hall where if you had a QR code, you proceeded straight to testing, and if you didn’t, you could purchase it via contactless screens.
Throughout the process we were reminded to download the app, to ensure that we could be traced easily. While I have no problem when it comes to digital privacy, I understand that some travellers may be nervous, particularly as you are required to have location services applied to the app at all times. (If you try to remove this feature from the app, it will remind you constantly). Arriving at 9.45am in the morning, the Covid testing area was empty. Much like queuing for immigration, you lined-up for a free booth, and some 20 or so were operational at the time of my arrival. I didn’t have to wait at all, stepping up to the booth, I was next in line.
While they try to maintain some level of privacy when you do the test, it is inevitable that in such mass testing circumstances you are able to see what’s going on with the person ahead of you. There are signs everywhere asking that you do not take any pictures, but everyone had their phones out as they clearly wanted to record this new-norm phenomenon.
From what I could see with the person ahead of me, the process takes all of three minutes. First they scan your QR code to create labels for your sample. Then you’re asked to remove your mask, and open your mouth wide, while they take a swab (a thin, elongated cotton bud) to the inside of your throat, all over in five seconds.
Next, they do the same with your nose, asking you to breathe with your mouth and count to five. The lady in front of me was not having a good time at this point, clearly finding discomfort in the process – letting out yelps in the process.But fear not, I would say that she was overreacting somewhat, as when it came to my turn, the nose swab really didn’t hurt at all. Yes, it’s strange that a long, straight stick enters your curved nasal canal, but it certainly isn’t painful – I’d describe it as a sensitivity that lasts five seconds and makes you want to sneeze or blow your nose straight after.
The staff were friendly and good at explaining the whole process and I was in and out in a flash, not before my test administrator reminded me one last time to download the app and to put my mask back on. I’m handed a multi-lingual leaflet explaining the whole process and off I went to collect my luggage.
If my stay in Iceland was to exceed five days, I had to agree and pay for another test at a local test centre in Reykjavik and in other more populated parts of the country. The process would be similar, but I would not have to physically distance from others after, with the results guaranteed in 24 hours.
As for the airport test at Keflavik, on a good day, the result is said to take between two and four hours to be delivered, four to six in busier times. The leaflet assured that in any case, a result should arrive within 12 hours. And if it doesn’t arrive in 24 hours, I am to call and check. So it seemed the window for results, is rather vague.
The arrivals hall was empty of the usual cacophony – drivers and transfers cannot enter the premises and can only pick you up kerbside once you’ve cleared customs and called them. Keflavik is by no means a large airport, so it took seconds from calling for our car to arrive.
The guidelines stated that I was to travel immediately to my destination if it was close, or shelter in a nearby hotel if it was not; and minimise all possible human contact until my result shows negative.
The guidelines aren’t strict – my masked driver informed me that I am even welcome to do a tour, or enjoy the destination in whatever way I wanted while waiting for the result, but to apply common sense and physically distance from Icelanders or other travellers as much as possible.
Our final destination was over two hours away from the airport and had a policy that they wouldn’t accept new guests until the test results were received. This is at the discretion of the hotel or accommodation – I have heard that some are happy for you to shelter after a contact-free or limited check-in.
In my case, I could either check in to a nearby airport hotel to await our results (of which there aren’t many), but keen to make the process as luxurious as possible, Abercrombie and Kent booked me in for a private spa experience at the nearby Retreat Hotel at the Blue Lagoon for a few hours.We were to enjoy the stunning facilities and have some lunch while we waited for the result to come by SMS or via the app – and there was no better way to do it than in the quiet, seclusion of this private spa, adjoining but closed off from the main Blue Lagoon. In any case, even the main attraction was low on visiting guests, usually jam-packed in better times, so I got to enjoy it without encountering many other people.
The wait for the result is agonising. Doing it for the first time, there is no precedent – and throughout the process, you hear stories from people of how sometimes it takes two hours, and other times four, some say eight – and others don’t get it until the next day.
The “marketing” sounds good with the two- to four-hour window, but like with any of this sort of stuff, it is really dependent on a range of factors during the day – the number of tests, your time of arrival, how efficient the lab is on that given day. It is important to manage your expectations.
Four hours passed and still no results. I started to fear the worst, but was assured by a receptionist who had a friend working in testing that if I did have it, they’d want to contact me as quickly as possible. Six hours passed and Abercrombie and Kent started to worry.
Eight hours – I went for a walk around the rugged landscape near the hotel to take some pictures. Nine hours passed and I had dinner, ten hours… and still no result.
As there is only so much I could wait at the Retreat, as sublime as it was (and the staff were also starting to get a little concerned for their wellbeing), A&K made a decision to book me into the nearby Northern Lights Inn. There, they accepted pre-result guests and from the quick, physically-distanced discussion I had with the hotel manager, it was clearly not the first time they saw this happen.
Typically, the moment I walked into my comfortable room at the Northern Lights Inn, my phone buzzed and I received my negative result – a simple text that said “you have not been diagnosed with Covid-19” – followed by yet another reminder to download the tracing app. A welcome relief, some 11 hours and 12 minutes since I tested. It being late, I opted to stay overnight and head out to my destination the next day.
If I had tested positive, the government would have contacted me by phone and advised on next steps. Options would have included an immediate 14-day lockdown quarantine in place, but that is unrealistic considering the cost of private accommodation for two weeks. The alternative is to be ambulanced to a sheltering place of the government’s choice and expense, which I can’t imagine would be much fun.
There’s a big difference between four hours and 11. Yes, it came within the 12-hour window, but it makes for difficult planning. Thankfully, my trip was booked with a travel advisor, who ironed out all the creases for me. It would have been a small drama if I had to figure that all out by myself, as a lot of self-booking travellers will have to. But I subsequently learnt that there had been some major changes (and challenges) to the system over the past few weeks prior to my arrival, which might explain the delay.
Just the week before my arrival, the Icelandic genome research company deCode had decided that it no longer wanted to handle the testing at Iceland borders, because it was too inefficient and evidently not profitable for the company to do so, when its other operation (Icelandic ancestry tracing and geneology) was.
However, what that meant was that on the day of my arrival, they had switched to the new, government-run system spearheaded by the National University Hospital of Iceland, and with limited funding and handover time in the short term, even when each and every traveller pays their own way, it was bound to run less efficiently.
How it will continue is yet to be seen, especially as visitor numbers start to grow, but the government asserts that all is in hand. However, a few days into my trip, I met fellow travellers who said it took them over eight hours, and it was also just announced that now only positive test results will be informed, rather than all results. Word on the street is that Iceland may scrap the whole programme altogether in the coming months.As of July 16, the Icelandic government had already relaxed testing requirements from passengers arriving from Denmark, Norway, Finland and Germany. Icelandic citizens returning home will also be exempt. For me, this shows that the testing-on-arrival programme is unsustainable and many travel industry bods in Iceland agree.
In a country of some 300,000 people, where incidents have been so low, no one has had to wear a mask, or be overtly concerned with lockdown. But now, Icelanders are starting to be much more careful and wary – a guide on one of our tours was particularly concerned when she heard Norwegian or German being spoken, despite them being low-risk states. It seems there may be some discord in Covid-utopia.
Iceland’s success in preventing the spread of the virus and keeping its tourism industry tiding over depends on the successful testing and tracing of incoming travellers. It affects both domestic and international confidence and is important in keeping residents and visitors safe. But how will it end up? Only time – and careful deliberation and implementation by the country’s government – will tell.
Departing on Easyjet from Iceland was entirely different. It is not uncommon with low cost carriers that passengers arrive while departing customers wait to depart. So previously Covid-cleared departing travellers (most of which were blazé and not wearing masks after their few days in Iceland) had to mix in the same room with albeit masked, arriving untested travellers. There was also no way the plane could have been cleaned properly and disinfected for the return leg.
But compared to my landing back in the UK, Iceland was a dream. At London Luton, there was no one to take the photocopied tracking form they insisted we filled out on arrival back in the UK. There was no thermal scanning as discussed in the news, nor was there any social distancing or attempt by airport staff to keep the thousands of tourists in the immigration hall apart, arriving back from all over the world.
The current government’s plans is a lot of lip-service, and while in Iceland, the testing may have its occasional set-backs, but it goes a long way to reassure travellers to return to the country.
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