With just a few days’ notice, it was announced that major Middle Eastern hub Qatar would be placed on the UK government’s ‘red list’ at 4am on Friday March 19. Currently on assignment in the Maldives, Olivia Palamountain was scheduled to transit through Doha airport in Qatar after this deadline, to face compulsory airport hotel quarantine. The only sensible answer to swerving Covid prison? Extend her stay in paradise.
As Covid has captured travel and grounded global free movement, I’ve been on the journalistic front line, reporting news, views and trends on the fiasco in real time, as they unfold.
So while I guess it’s fair to say I know the risks involved with travel better than most, I’m also invested in getting the scoop on what we can really expect from our trips – both now and in the months to come.
If this sounds like a long-winded way of saying, “Please don’t judge me for heading to the Maldives on business during the nationwide UK lockdown,” that’s because it is – but, please, hear me out.
While the vaccinated population continues to grow, the world is taking tentative steps to believe in a Covid-free existence. But the situation is far from over, as exemplified by Qatar’s sudden addition to the red list this week.
The Middle Eastern state will now join Oman and neighbour the UAE on the UK government red list of banned destinations from 4am on March 19 (tomorrow).
With my trip to the Maldives booked from March 13-21 through Qatar Airways, I was always going to transit through Doha’s Hamad International airport (HIA).
But since the the homeward leg was scheduled to land after Qatar was slapped on the red list, as of 00.01 Maldivian time on March 17 I was categorically in the “danger zone” and the latest UK casualty in need of desperate repatriation.
What does a place on the red list actually mean for travellers? I’ll try to keep this simple. Anyone landing in the UK who has touched down on red list territory (airport transit included) after the date the destination turns red will be lawfully obliged to quarantine for ten days in a designated airport hotel at their own expense, to the tune of circa £1,500.
While ten days in a hotel conjures images of spa trips, sunshine and boozy lunches, a holiday this ain’t – unless you’re into solitary confinement, bland meals and tired, corporate hotels on the M25.
However, there’s more to it than that. What most people don’t understand is that hotel quarantine will also apply to anyone who has touched red list terra firma in the ten days before their arrival back in the UK, activated retrospectively from the date the legislation comes into play.
It’s this second sting that really bites.
Even if a traveller can find an alternative flight home, one which bypasses transit through the red list, if they moved through said red list destination on their outward leg (which is more than likely) it is imperative that they arrive back on UK soil at least ten days after they set off – or face a stay at HM hotel prison.
Confused? I certainly was, until the incredible team at Storrington PR held my hand through the small print. (I was on a press trip visiting one of their client’s resorts.)
I had three options: get on the next available Qatar Airways flight back to the UK from Malé (all of which layover at HIA, with the risk of delays and cancellations) arriving absolutely no later than 4am on March 19 (cutting my trip short by four days); buy a new flight with an airline that doesn’t touch any red list countries and would arrive home after March 24, or stick to the original plan and head straight to the quarantine hotel.
Hmmm. I don’t think anyone needs to have been to the Maldives to know how fabulous this Indian Ocean archipelago is. The islands are exactly as they appear in glossy guides and swanky travel features, all crystalline waters and blinding white sand, the very definition of barefoot luxury. Remind me what the weather’s like in London?
I went for option two (obviously) but only because I can.
I am an agile traveller, journeying without children or family, with no one expecting me home (except maybe Boris) and the freedom to WFA (work from anywhere).
Chasing fresh flights around the world to bypass the red list with family or extending a stay to the detriment of reuniting with children would make my choice less appealing.
Let us not forget the costs involved too.
Fortunately for me, the team at Sun Siyam Iru Fushi have welcomed this unforeseen extension to my stay in true island style – chilled out and with huge generosity. Plus, there just happens to be enough space to host me.
Turning a shocker of a situation to one’s advantage is rarely easy to achieve. While I’ve dodged a bullet and landed on my feet in paradise – for now – the sand is still shifting so let this be a cautionary tale.
Even when borders open up, there’s a very real risk of travellers ending up in similar situations to my own.
So, considering the danger, will travel be worth it? My head says no, but while the scent of warm sand and jasmine lingers in the air and the sun sets to the rhythm of the sea, my heart says yes – every time.