Has the shadow of Covid finally departed for travel?

The Man Who Pays His Way: The last Cathay Pacific plane to seek sanctuary in the desert has left storage in Alice Springs – the end of a dismal era

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Saturday 08 June 2024 12:44 BST
Desert sanctuary: Qantas plane (foreground) with Cathay Pacific and other jets (background) in October 2022
Desert sanctuary: Qantas plane (foreground) with Cathay Pacific and other jets (background) in October 2022 (Simon Calder )

Until this weekend, a Qantas passenger who happened to doze off during the 800-mile flight from Darwin to Alice Springs could be forgiven for thinking the plane had diverted to Hong Kong.

The city in Australia’s Red Centre is the home of Asia Pacific Aircraft Storage. For much of the past four years, the dry heat of the Outback has embraced a large part of the fleet of Cathay Pacific – arguably the airline most affected by the Covid pandemic. With a single hub on the edge of the nation, China, which experienced the most draconian travel restrictions, the “CX” schedule was so thin it made a skeleton service look well nourished.

The initial Cathay Pacific plane to seek sanctuary in the desert was an Airbus A330 that touched down in July 2020. At its peak, Alice Springs was home to 76 wide-bodied jets bearing the livery of the Hong Kong intercontinental airline. The first to arrive was the last to depart, after more than 200 weeks.

Every Cathay Pacific aircraft has now flown north to get on with the important business of flying people safely around the world. I call the end of the Covid era (whatever North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un may have to say about that). A good moment, then, to look back at what we have learnt.

The lesson is simple: when the next pandemic arrives, politicians should be cut out of the travel restriction process. Looking back makes me shudder at the profound and prolonged incompetence of our elected representatives.

Monday 10 June will mark four years since the then-home secretary, Priti Patel, announced two weeks of mandatory quarantine for almost all arrivals from abroad. “Now we are past the peak of this virus, we must take steps to guard against imported cases, triggering a resurgence of this deadly disease,” she said.

Five days later lockdown mark 1 ended and easyJet resumed flights. Tina Milton, one of the cabin crew aboard the airline’s first departure, flight 883 from Gatwick to Glasgow, told me: “It’s the start of the future.”

A month on, “travel corridors” opened for British travellers, allowing quarantine-free trips to France, Italy, Spain and Turkey, but not to Portugal or Croatia.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps was the caller in what would become a regular game of travel bingo. Within two weeks, at a few hours’ notice, the government said: “People returning to the UK from Spain from midnight tonight will need to self-isolate for two weeks.”

Yes: after just 15 days, the most popular destination for British holidaymakers has been put back on the quarantine list.

By 15 August 2020, anyone with the temerity to visit the second-most popular nation, France, had to sit in a room for two weeks on their return. The Netherlands was also “red-listed” and this was when we saw the first of several episodes of transport providers speeding up to get people back before the 4am deadline; Stena Line went full speed ahead from Hook of Holland to Harwich so that its passengers would not need to quarantine.

By September, things got exotic, with quarantine mandatory from just seven Greek islands: Crete, Lesvos, Mykonos, Santorini, Serifos, Tinos and Zakynthos.

In bronze position on the maddest pandemic decisions podium is the moment the Foreign Office put Portugal in the same risk category as central Kabul and parts of Somalia.

The government, though, was preparing to go nuclear with a total ban on international leisure travel. Some of the people who missed the ”Jingle & Mingle” party at Conservative Campaign HQ on 14 December 2020 were busily drafting a law imposing fines for anyone at an airport, seaport or international railway station without good cause.

Three weeks after the 10-week prohibition began, Patel complained: “There are still too many people coming in and out of our country each day.” The following week, hotel quarantine began, costing around £2,000 for 10 days.

A later report showed the entire hotel quarantine process to have been pointless, so it takes silver medal for the worst ministerial decisions. “Every new restriction on freedom, such as the ill-conceived “declaration to travel”, diminishes us, and our place in the world,” I write.

The gold goes to “amber plus” – a category created in July 2021, especially for France. It amounted to a travel ban at the start of the school summer holidays in England and Wales, because of what foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, called “the so-called Beta variant, in particular in the Réunion bit of France”. That it was 5,800 miles away from Paris was deemed irrelevant – and indeed the island itself escaped the ignominy of “amber plus”.

France’s then-Europe minister, Clément Beaune, tweeted: “The UK’s quarantine measures for France are excessive and incomprehensible in health terms.” Correct.

The French got their revenge, though. Proving that the UK government did not have a monopoly on nonsensical Covid decisions, France imposed a travel ban on British passengers for three weeks over Christmas 2021 and the start of 2022, wiping out holidays and family reunions for hundreds of thousands.

The fact that the UK’s travel industry survived such an onslaught of irrationality, with many decisions taken by what we now know to be partying politicians, is a tribute to the resilience of the men and women who work in it. We can once again spread our wings. I hope you may one day visit the wonderful Red Centre of Australia – and that no long-haul planes are parked at Alice Springs when you touch down.

Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.

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