Simon Calder: Treat the travel bug with common sense
Saturday 25 July 2009
The last travel-related bug to cause such consternation was less tangible. A decade ago the tourism industry worked itself into a frenzy predicting the likely effects of the "Millennium Bug", when the clocks driving primitive computers ticked over from year 99 to 00.
"Experts" feared the systems on trains, boats and planes would throw their digital hands up in panic: railway signals could fail, hotel lifts might behave even more eccentrically than they usually do, and planes whose avionics no longer knew what millennium it was would tumble from the sky. A particularly absurd urban myth insisted that all aircraft would be grounded before midnight on 31 December 1999 to eliminate the risk of bug-induced plummetting – and that the world's airports lacked enough space to fit them all.
While such tosh took root, billions of pounds were ploughed into hiring experts to fix the Millennium Bug. Either they were extremely good at the task, or there wasn't much to worry about in the first place. I tend towards the latter view, given that the Cuban government invested barely three pesos in countering the threat. As the zeroes in Fidel's rudimentary digital watch (no doubt made in Minsk in 1980) clunked around to 00:00 on 1 January 2000, the last Communist regime in the west shambled on.
Like Cuba, most of us have somehow muddled through the first decade of the 21st century without undue travel catastrophe. But just when you thought it was safe to go on holiday, the front-page headlines this week threaten the plans of anyone with a sniffle: "Airlines to turn away 'swine flu' passengers," warned The Times. "Sneezing tourists will need doctor's note to fly."
Oh dear. The international traveller's packing list has changed radically in the past decade. The bare minimum used to be passport, money, tickets. Ticketless travel has thankfully removed one source of anxiety. A passport is still useful (preferably your own, though a friend has just enjoyed a week touring France pretending to be someone else after he mislaid his own passport shortly before departure). Money is still an essential – indeed, unless you are heading for Iceland or Zimbabwe, you will probably need significantly more of it this summer.
Yet some holidaymakers will fret needlessly and possibly harmfully about what they see as two more essentials: Tamiflu, in case swine flu strikes while on holiday; and a "fit-to-fly" note from the doctor.
As has become clear in the past 48 hours, anti-viral drugs are alarmingly easy to obtain by ticking the right National Pandemic Flu Service boxes. But a letter from your GP confirming you are fit to board an aircraft is a trickier prospect.
"In a 'normal' week, I do about two or three of these," a south London GP told me. Letters are required routinely by airlines for prospective passengers who, for example, have recently had an operation or have a chronic bronchial condition. And, since they do not constitute part of NHS duties, she charges a £25 fee. But anyone seeking to get a certificate confirming absence from swine flu is likely to get short shrift from their doctor. "Even if we had time to issue them, they would become meaningless within a couple of days."
Fortunately, the notion that passengers arriving at check-in at Gatwick will be greeted by a line of masked health workers is wide of the mark. How many people have been turned away since the outbreak of swine flu, I enquired of Virgin Atlantic and British Airways?
"It's an extremely small number," said a spokeswoman for BA. "None," said Virgin. Neither has easyJet denied boarding to prospective passenger suspected of having the bug. On four occasions, the airline has discovered, after the event, that passengers with the illness have flown on one of its jets; on each, the aircraft has been "deep-cleaned" and other passengers notified.
What happens when you phphone the airlines' call centres to ask about the "flu-free" documentation required for a forthcoming trip? Mainly, the response is mirth, though the woman at Virgin Atlantic said, with irritation, "This issue has been misrepresented in the press."
Air France was the only airline that suggested "It is possible that this might be necessary," though the helpful man pointed out "As long as you don't look ill, you'll be fine." Another helpful man, Michael O'Leary of Ryanair, said his airline was not in the hunt-the-flu-victim game: "Our staff are not medical experts." What the travel industry needs now is an outbreak of common sense.
Tapestry of trauma from Bayeux
"Unclean! French swine flu squad in white suits and masks swoop on terrified English children and send them back home in a blacked-out coach" – as a front-page headline that will raise the hackles of middle England, Thursday's Daily Mail takes some beating. A group of teenagers and teachers from Luton were on holiday in Bayeux in Normandy. After some of the party developed symptons of swine flu, they were, apparently, told to "go home to your disease-ridden country". They were packed onto a coach for "An eight-hour journey in sweltering heat, with all the curtains closed" to Calais. (Had I been on board, I may have briefly removed my surgical mask to enquire of the driver why it should take so long to cover the 220 miles to the Channel port.) Once in Calais, the obvious next step was to send the coach on a Eurotunnel Shuttle through the Channel Tunnel to protect other travellers. But the French authorities opted instead to decant them onto a Eurostar train to London, no doubt concluding that anyone heading to a "disease-ridden country" was doomed anyway.
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