Safely Back Home
Paul Hyett, 28 October 2021
If you have yet to make your first post-Covid visit to another country, let me forewarn you: from start to finish you will be challenged., writes Paul Hyett.
There’s no doubt of course that we had become accustomed to easy inter-country and inter-city movement, but what I have recently been through in preparation for, and during, my first foray into mainland Europe since my December 2019 visit to WAF in Amsterdam has served only to reinforce my memories of those halcyon days, pre-Brexit and pre-Covid, when travel was as simple as it was cheap, and as hassle-free as it was pleasurable.
I had been invited to join a two-city workshop organised by Design Intelligence which started in Rome and rolled on to Venice. First, I had to obtain a ‘Covid Vaccination’ Certificate. This involved an application to our National Health Service, which, with laudable efficiency, sent the document electronically. Herein of course lies the first real problem: if you are anything less than IT savvy, stay at home – you won’t make it.
Indeed, the level of IT knowledge and competence now required for travel renders many of our elderly severely disadvantaged: SAGA (the organization for older folk which runs holidays) be aware: many of your 2.7 million customers – and certainly those without a smart phone – will need nursing all the way through this one. And you will need patience in abundance.
I was just about IT-savvy enough to fight my way through this IT roller-coaster, but I certainly lacked the patience which led to many a stumble, and occasionally heavy falls as, short of the ability to show the right information in the right form (electronic or paper) my road ahead was blocked. Yes, blocked, and non-negotiable. Show the necessary document or stay there, stay out, or go back. Anything except go on. I kid you not: I have seen couples separated; the elderly left behind; and siblings split between parents who made it ‘through’ and those that didn’t.
When my NHS Covid Certificate arrived, I printed a copy for incorporation into my newly prepared ‘hard-copy’ travel file, and duly transferred an electronic copy to my iPhone ‘wallet’ (remember that you have done this – I forgot, but more of that later). This strange little form, issued under our wonderful NHS logo, contains the simplest of information: name; date of birth; period of validity; dosage status (one jab or two) date of ‘Dose 2’; vaccination product; and, of critical importance, the ‘Bar Code’. The NHS use a two-dimensional QR barcode which is supplied by the Denso Corporation. Better than the old linear one-dimensional versions used in retail, it can carry much more information. However, be careful: if you print a copy, the paper version often fails to register with the mobile scanners used in airports. It is therefore essential that you always carry your electronic version with you on your smart phone.
Next, and before I travelled, I had to arrange my Covid tests which must be carried out within 48 hours of travel and certified by a registered laboratory. These are not cheap at £110 per test: you also need proof of a pre-booked test scheduled for within two days of your return, so that’s another £90. Think about it: that’s £400 for a couple’s holiday abroad. Good-bye cheap travel.
In my case it was a knife-edge as to whether I would travel or not on the allotted Sunday. Tested on the preceding Friday morning at the local pharmacy, my certificate, which was due to be issued electronically on the Friday afternoon, had still not arrived on the Saturday morning. Multiple phone-calls to the chemist led to investigations which initially suggested my test had been lost (and it was too late to do another). But mercifully, around 5pm on Saturday evening, success; sample found, and the certificate arrived. I was good to go.
I arrived uncharacteristically early at the Foster & Partners Stansted Airport. I had layered in contingency time for every possible ‘hiccup’ along the way. But actually all was easy – no queue at check in, and I was able to quickly produce i) my passport, ii) my RyanAir electronic flight ticket, iii) my Passenger Locator Form and iv) my PCR Test Certificate as issued by the laboratory. Each of these carried my very own QR Code and, I kid you not, if any one of these goes missing, you’re going nowhere. But all mine were in order, so I whizzed on through passports and security, and all was good until I was stopped by one of their grim food outlets: no access without my Covid Vaccination Certificate. Easy: I produced once more my electronic version and I was in.
The remainder of the journey was without incident, and no real problems at Rome arrivals except, on my first trip out of the UK since Brexit, I was saddened to be split from my European ‘family’ and channelled into the non-EU line. And it took forever: as other European travellers joined the fast-moving EU queues, I shuffled slowly forward with seemingly everyone in my queue being subjected to lengthy questioning. It took me one and a half hours to get through passport control.
All the certificates had to be produced again at the hotel check-in late that Sunday evening but no hassle, I dropped my bags and made off to a restaurant. There I was again required to show my vaccination certificate, a ritual that is currently required pretty well everywhere in Italy.
The conference was great: more meals, regular proof of Covid status being required, but all good, then off to Venice by train. Here again, serious documentation protocols: identity and Covid status certificates to get into the station, and again through the ticket barriers, and again on the train itself. My electronic version often didn’t work with their hand-held scanner, so frequently much rummaging in my case, and then my briefcase, until I found the appropriate paper version.
And on and on this went as we progressed through the Venice protocols of hotel check-in and entry to restaurants. And my word weren’t they strict on the water-buses: no mask, no boarding. No argument.
All this is, of course, for our individual safety and our collective good, but it reminded me of a trip I took to China in 1978. At that time the country was pretty well closed to foreigners and very different from the China I recently lived in for three pre-Covid years. While Europe was colourful, the Chinese in that immediate post-Mao era wore only blue denim jackets and trousers irrespective of age and sex. Chinese nationals needed a special pass to travel by train from city to city. Courtesy of Covid-19, that situation now pertains across Europe: no pass, no train travel, and no movement across national boundaries without a ‘Passenger Locator Form’. I know this is as wise as it is necessary for the common good, but it certainly gives governments a very clear grasp on where we all are.
Indeed, nothing like it has been witnessed since the Nazi machine swept across Europe. By chance, as I travelled across Italy, I was reading a biography of that most evil of the Nazis, Reinhard Heydrich. His killing apparatus was efficient to chilling effect and all without any of our modern-day computerised systems. All by paper, the SS ‘machine’, with incredible administrative efficiency, established and maintained the most sophisticated human database hitherto seen. For vast swathes of the population, ruthlessly effective applied from the point of invasion to mass executions. There all comparison ends because, whatever the irritations, we fully understand that the benign governments of Europe are gathering and maintaining this information in the interests of its citizens. We are nevertheless being monitored in terms of our movement as never before in peacetime Europe.
Those chiefly responsible for the Nazi atrocities were ultimately brought to trial at Nuremburg and the worst of them were sentenced to death by hanging. Unluckily for them, that process was carried out with a bungling incompetence and inefficiency that contrasted starkly with that of their evil regime – all due to the Americans, who insisted that ‘their’ hangman be charged with responsibility for the first 10 top-level Nazi executions.
And so it was that Master Sergeant John C Woods was to deliver justice. He had neither the training nor the experience of his British counterpart, Albert Pierrepoint, who would carefully assess the weight of his charges to calculate the rope length, and thus a ‘drop’ sufficient to break the neck causing virtually instant death, without severing the head. Unlike Pierrepoint, who carried out over 400 executions in his 25-year career, Woods was clueless.
He was also an imposter. Abandoned by his parents shortly after birth, he dropped out of school in Kansas to join the US Navy. Finding that career unsuitable, he deserted, only to be caught and tried. He was then assessed as a ‘constitutional psychotic’ and dismissed, thereafter bouncing from one job to another until, at the outbreak of World War 2, he was drafted into the US Army as a combat engineer, eventually arriving in Normandy following the D-Day landings. There, death sentences of its own military for grievous crimes such as rape and murder were effected to maintain discipline, and Woods answered the Army’s call for a hangman during the invasion’s advance across Europe, apparently bungling a number of executions along the way.
He had lied about his experience at interview, claiming to have been an executioner in his home state of Oklahoma. Thus, it was that Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Foreign Minister who went to the gallows first (Hermann Goering having committed suicide) would take 14 minutes to die. Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel would choke for nearly twice as long. And so on….
So however tempting it might be to liken our current frustrating paperwork and bureaucracy in these Covid-charged times to Europe under occupation, we shouldn’t forget that behind it are governments who ultimately care for their people’s wellbeing, one and all.
It was in fact very nice to be back ‘in Europe’.