Inside a quarantine hotel on Heathrow's 'Isolation Row'

Quarantine hotels: the inside story from the Heathrow Novotel

One night is quite enough for our man on ‘Isolation Row’

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Monday 15 February 2021 16:50

A symphony of beige and brown: exactly what you want for a brief overnight stay at an airport hotel. The Heathrow airport Novotel delivers. But for an 11-night stretch in quarantine, I sense the narrow and sombre colour spectrum may grate just as much as the regular “plink, plonk” signalling the arrival of the lift opposite.

“Take time to unwind” urges the key-holder for room 203 of the four-star, 166-room palace where I am currently located. “Time is on your side,” it adds. The management might want to find a plain substitute for plane passengers checking into somewhere they really don’t want to be.

In quarantine, time is your enemy, not your friend.

Travellers arriving from Portugal, the UAE, South Africa and 30 other nations, mainly in southern Africa and South America, are now required to spend £1,750 for 11 nights in hotel quarantine.

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Arrivals in England must touch down at Birmingham, Gatwick, London City or Heathrow (or, if they have access to a private jet, Farnborough in Hampshire). In Scotland, the targets are Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow – and, unlike in England, all international arrivals will be required to check in to one of seven hotels.

On both sides of the border, arrivals will be taken, under guard, to a government-appointed hotel.

Anyone with an early flight needs only a quiet room, a comfortable bed and a decent shower. But this hotel, opposite the northern runway at Britain’s busiest airport, is this morning being repurposed as one of several detention centres for arriving travellers.

The Bath Road, running parallel to the runway, is henceforth known as Isolation Row.

Eleven months after nations in the Asia-Pacific region brought in mandatory quarantine for arrivals, the UK is introducing something similar.

I checked in at 9pm on Sunday night, paying £71 for bed and breakfast, the final night before the Novotel switched to its role as a quarantine hotel – for which guests will be paying £159 per night.

The hotel will not be profiteering: reports indicate it will get barely half the sum, even though the kitchens will be providing three meals a day. The remainder goes on security, transport and testing.

“You’ll be spoilt for choice during your stay,” the pre-pandemic publicity promises.

“Guests are welcome to enjoy a hearty meal in the Nest Restaurant, which features an exquisite selection of local and international dishes. Guests can also enjoy a drink in our bar.”

Oh no, they can’t. Three meals a day will be delivered. Judging from breakfast, it will not be hypernutritious. I have eaten the peach yoghurt and apple, but the Coco Pops, Frosties bar and croissant of indeterminate age remain untouched.

“Quarantinees” can’t be choosers. They will be assigned a hotel – and a room. I asked for a runway view, so I could feel connected with the world beyond, but instead was assigned a room with a panorama of the car park.

Room 203, according to my calculations, has an area of 19 sq m, though the hotel claims it is 23. Either way, much of the space is taken up with a comfortable queen-size bed, wardrobes (with ample storage even for ambitious packers) and a decent bathroom – though with a shower rather than a bath.

There is also a hotel safe you won’t be using because you’ll be in the room the whole time, a minuscule kettle and a massive Samsung television facing the bed. Fortunately – because it is the only two-way connection with the outside world – the wifi is fast and robust.

The window does not open, but through it I can see gloom of wintry west London. The precious “fresh-air breaks” – which the government says it hopes to provide but which are not guaranteed – will be organised in a corner of the car park, judging from the equipment being assembled.

Australia’s experience highlights these outside moments as the major risk for spreading infection: security staff will need to share lifts that were not designed for the coronavirus era as they usher their charges to the less-than-great outdoors.

The monotony will be broken on days two and eight, when quarantinees are required to take Covid tests, included in that £1,750 fee.

Let us hope that they are spared wildlife: some of the tennis professionals forced to self-isolate before the Australian Open in Melbourne shared rooms with mice. All I have for company is a tiny silverfish, which is currently enjoying a long-distance stroll across the duvet.

Plink-plonk. The noise from the lift opposite has been mildly irritating after 12 hours – by day 12 it could become maddening.

I have some form in terms of quarantine. As a teenager I spent a week in less-than-splendid isolation in Crawley Hospital with meningitis. Quarantinees will be spared the lumbar puncture that I enjoyed, but I fear their emotional and physical health will suffer.

One night is quite enough on Isolation Row.

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