I am not advocating disobeying any quarantine instructions when entering any country. Nor am I saying that my experience is the norm. I am simply referring to my own experience and offering my opinion on the subject.
I will be isolating at home for 14 days as required to by UK law.
All Is Well
In May 2020, Spain announced that they would be opening their doors to the world from July 2020. As such, I looked into flights and booked a trip to Mallorca. As there was still a travel ban in place in the UK at that point, I made a point of making everything fully flexible, just in case. When blanket quarantine restrictions were lifted in the UK, and Spain was on the list of exempt destinations, I was good to go.
Fast forward to the week of departure, and things were still on. However, a couple of days before departure, there were whispers that Spain could be added back on to the list of the UK’s banned countries. However, looking at things more closely, it appeared to be tabloid sensationalism. Phrases like Spain could be added, The UK is considering adding Spain to the list, and arrivals from Spain into the UK are believed to be made to quarantine soon.
So nothing too concrete. The Times however went with the following on 23rd July:
As I’m sure most are aware, just 48 hours later, the quarantine policies were indeed changed at very short notice.
As I had already filled in my locator form for my arrival back into the UK, stating that I didn’t need to quarantine, there was a little concern on my part. Would I have to deal with a surly border control officer who would be talking to me like a naughty school child? Will I have to struggle to fill out a new paper form as I’m waiting in a line?
After boarding my flight in Madrid, the crew made the usual announcements. Followed by a couple of new tag ons, regarding staying safe on board. And then a further afterthought, briefly mentioning that passengers on this flight would have to quarantine on arrival… unless they were exempt. To be fair to the crew though, this seemed a little off piste as opposed to an official line from British Airways. So I cant really fault them in this regard. A similar announcement was made as we arrived on to stand, although again, it wasn’t a stand alone announcement. It was easily lost in the usual arrival blurb.
Upon leaving the aircraft at Heathrow, I made my way through an eerily quiet terminal.
What Would Await Me When I Reached Border Control?
This is where the big surprise for me came. On approach to the area, there were a few signs on the wall mentioning that everyone needs to complete a locator form. These could very easily be mistaken for advertising posters though and ignored by most. In addition, there were a few smaller signs with QR codes, but again, these could have been easily missed. Especially if someone is buried in their phone, as most people are when getting off a flight. I’m guilty of it too.
Surely as a last resort, there would be paper forms on hand to fill out and someone checking as you filter through? This is how it worked in Spain. Nope. Carry on as you were.
I had fully expected the ePassport gates to be switched off, in order to make sure everyone went to a human. Because how would a machine check if you had provided false information on the locator form? Thats assuming they had been programmed to link the number of the passport entered into the machine to what had been entered online. Theres no guarantees that any changes have been made to the software however. In which case, how would the machine even know that you had even entered your details online?
The part that amused me the most was that during normal times, more often than not, there would be only a handful of ePassport gates in operation. This time around, from what I could see, ALL of them were operational!
As I approached the ePassport gates, I was met by one of the Heathrow helpers. Maybe they would check to see if I had filled anything out? Not exactly. They asked where I had come from. I replied Spain, fully expecting to be told to go and see a border control officer, given how last minute the quarantine requirement came in. Again, wrong. I was ushered towards one of the many ePassport machines.
So What Next?
Ahhh, ok I get it. Maybe there would be a check after border control. Thats how it worked in Spain after all. Perhaps customs are sorting it out? I don’t see why though as the locator form is issued by the UK Visa and Immigration service. But still, the Spanish locator forms were collected in the baggage hall. Maybe the same was occurring here as its a larger area maybe?
When reaching the baggage reclaim hall, the South arrivals area was closed and everyone was filtered through to the North area. As I approached, there were a number of customs officers lined up outside, as opposed to in the customs area. Although most people appeared to be walking straight past. And the customs officers themselves didn’t appear to be doing an awful lot either.
I made my way though the deserted blue channel and out into arrivals.
From looking at the times on the pics I took, from leaving the aircraft to making it into the arrivals hall it took a grand total of 9 minutes. I interacted with a single person, whom I said one word to – ‘Spain’.
That was it.
For someone who is supposed to be in quarantine, there was a shocking lack of any checks that I would actually stick to it. I filled in the locator form honestly and will be sticking to my 2 weeks quarantine. However if I hadn’t bothered, theres no doubt in my mind that the end result would be the same. I could have quite easily claimed I had come from, say, Switzerland on the form and carried on my business as usual. Or not filled out the form at all. Nobody asked for any proof.
Likewise, I could have come from the USA/Brazil/India and nobody would be any the wiser I suspect.
My final thought is that I cant help but wonder how many on that same flight from Madrid that I was on are going about their normal business today? Either unaware of any restrictions, form filling or quarantine. Or perhaps they share the same thoughts as me and have decided that theres no way that they can get caught?
Hopefully most on board are sensible enough to do the right thing. However, of the 200 or so on board, surely the odds are that at least one of them will be thinking that they know better…
And thats the issue that the UK is facing. I’m not saying that the borders should be closed completely. But ensuring more stringent checks on those coming in would at least be a start.