Travelling during the pandemic

This week has been a particularly exciting one, and not just due to the XENON experiment result that has set both the arXiv and cosmology Twitter abuzz. Fate finally smiled on me and the Spanish borders have reopened to non-residents, thereby allowing me a small window of opportunity to return to Madrid to collect the suitcase that I left behind when I escaped to the UK in March. It was also nice to have a (short) break from living with my parents.

My first impression on arriving was the heat — it was pushing 30 degrees when I left the airport just after 11pm, and had barely cooled at all by the time I reached my apartment near midnight. Having to sleep with the air-con switched on was a shock to my system after the rather wet and windy weather we’ve been having at home… but let’s rewind to the start of my journey about ten hours earlier in the UK.

Face masks have been compulsory on public transport for a couple of weeks here. I was very grateful to my ICG colleague Sam Youles, who has been sewing masks for free, and gave me four. When I got on the train (in a small town in rural Oxfordshire), there was only one other person in the carriage, who was also wearing a mask. However, as we got closer to London, the train filled up (though was nowhere near as busy as a normal day) and some of the newcomers weren’t wearing masks. One woman even scolded another man for sitting close to her and not wearing one. Considering the usual reaction to antisocial behaviour on British public transport is a restrained sigh or tut, I was rather surprised.

Paddington was also fairly busy, and there were noticeably fewer people wearing masks, despite the tables dotted around where you could pick one up for free. It was the same story on the train to Heathrow, which baffled me; if I was living in such a densely populated area as London, I would feel more inclined to wear a mask, not less.

Heathrow itself was eerie in its emptiness. When I arrived, there were only four flights scheduled to depart from Terminal 5, of which mine was the last. The check-in hall was devoid of people apart from one or two staff members. There was a single lane of security open, and going through took about two minutes. The only shops open were Boots and a Pret a Manger, so I was at least able to get a sandwich and a cup of tea before settling down to wait for my flight.

It was a strange feeling as each of the other flights were called and the group of people clustered near the Pret diminished, until the only ones left were those of us going to Madrid. The flight was probably about two-thirds full, and went smoothly. We were asked to fill in a health form before arrival, with things like our address while in the country, an emergency contact and whether we’d been in hospital, had symptoms of the virus or been in contact with any symptomatic people in the last fourteen days.

After going through passport control in Madrid, we were filtered by flight into different areas of the arrivals hall. We had to hand the health form in, then walk past a thermal imaging camera. Another camera was taking pictures of everyone’s face as they walked through, though whether this was to record everyone’s mask usage or for further health screening later on, I don’t know.

The queue for passport control in Madrid.

The metro was fairly empty, and everyone was wearing a mask, in contrast to the situation in the UK. This is completely unsurprising to me, given the relative severity of the Spanish lockdown and the contrasting shambolic instructions from the UK government.

It was nice to be back in my small apartment in the city centre, despite the mouldy food that I left behind (the most interesting of which was a bunch of extremely shrivelled and black bananas). I spent most of Tuesday working before heading out for a walk, although the high temperatures, exacerbated by wearing a mask, meant I didn’t stay out for long. I packed my suitcase that evening and got an early night.

My return journey was much the same story as the outward one. Madrid airport was busier than Heathrow, with noticeably more flights departing. One thing I found strange was that all the duty-free shops were open but the majority of the food and drink places were closed, as were lots of the toilets. I’m not sure what the logic behind that was. There were also repeated announcements to maintain good hand hygiene, but there were no hand sanitiser dispensers that I could see, unlike at Heathrow where they had been attached to seemingly every available vertical surface.

My return flight was on a plane half the size than the first, and was probably half-full. Many of the passengers were Americans travelling to Heathrow to catch an onward flight to the States. We were given a sachet of hand sanitiser and cleaning wipes along with our lunch (all pre-packaged food — so much for trying to reduce plastic waste) and requested to keep movement inside the cabin to a minimum. When we arrived, we had to remain seated until our row number was called and we were allowed to retrieve our hand luggage and leave. I must say that I greatly preferred this method of disembarkation to the scrummage that usually occurs the second the seat belt sign is turned off.

Passport control at Heathrow went smoothly. Every passenger had to fill in the government’s online form, giving the address that you would be staying at for the fourteen day period of self-isolation. I find this requirement a bit pointless, as by the time you’ve disembarked from the plane and travelled to your final destination, likely by public transport, you will have come into contact with probably hundreds of people, potentially spreading the virus to all of them before you even get home to self-isolate.

Another failing was that the form had to be completed online. There were signs all through the arrivals hall with a QR code that linked to the form, but this is no good if you don’t have a smartphone, or if your phone has run out of battery, as could be possible after a long day’s travel. One passenger in the queue behind me had this exact problem; he hadn’t filled in the form because he had no way to access it. I don’t know what happened to him — presumably they gave him a hard copy to fill in — but I felt that the Spanish system of distributing hard copies to complete while on the plane was much better. There were also signs saying that a temperature check was being trialled, but I saw no evidence of this, unlike in Madrid.

On leaving the airport the trains were again fairly empty, although a signal failure near Worcester meant that upon reaching Paddington I had to take two different trains and a bus to get home, rather than the single train I was hoping for. Typical that one can travel a thousand miles without a hitch, but the great British rail network contrives to make the last ten impossible.

Overall, I felt that the airlines and the airports both did a good job of keeping the passengers as safe as they could, although a lot of the procedures rest on the passengers themselves being compliant.

How they compare

The airports: Heathrow comes out on top here. Fewer flights, far less crowded, food and drink available, very clean (I saw cleaners frequently coming round to disinfect seats), hand sanitiser everywhere.

The airlines: I flew with Iberia going out and BA coming back. BA was better, in my opinion. Boarding and disembarkation was tightly controlled and we were given hand sanitiser and wipes.

The public transport: Madrid wins here. Everyone was wearing a mask, unlike in the UK, and especially around London where many were not.

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