What it’s like to be stuck in a ‘quarantine hotel’ when emigrating from South Africa

Earlier this year, I decided to leave South Africa to live in the United Kingdom, in London.

Flying to the United Kingdom from South Africa is particularly frustrating at this point, as despite its relatively low daily Covid-19 cases, South Africa has been placed on the UK’s “red list” of countries due to the “South African variant” prevalent amongst its infected.

Not only does this make the paperwork of emigration more difficult, it also frustrates the process of booking a flight and making arrangements for when you arrive.

I landed in London on Sunday 28 March, following weeks of fluctuating planning and extensive exposure to a battery of tests and immigration forms, long flight times, and even longer queues.

I am not done yet, however, as I’m currently serving out a mandatory – and expensive – 10-day quarantine in a hotel near Heathrow.

Below is an account of the experience of flying to the UK from South Africa and staying in a quarantine hotel.

The UK government provides a clear outline of travel restrictions on people flying from South Africa, as well as all the documents they need to complete their trip.

It also clearly states anyone who has been in a “red list” country within the last 10 days is not permitted to travel to the UK, with the exception of British and Irish nationals, and those with residence rights in the UK.

I fortunately have Irish citizenship so I was able to proceed, provided I did the following:

  • Book a flight from a country that is allowed to fly to the UK.
  • Book a managed quarantine package for when I land in the UK (includes 10-day hotel quarantine stay and two PCR tests)
  • Provide a negative Covid-19 test result taken 72 hours before departing for the UK.
  • Complete a Personal Locator Form 48 hours before landing in the UK.

This was not as easy as it seems – especially considering the unpredictable travel regulations.

I had first booked my flight with Qatar Airways, which would see me lay over in Doha on the way to London. However, less than a week after booking this, the UK government added Qatar to its “red list” of countries.

This forced me to cancel my flight, hoping for a refund, and book a new flight for the same day with Air France. Qatar Airways eventually refunded me the full amount for my ticket.

The next hurdle was the Covid-19 quarantine package. This took some time, especially when it comes to paying the hefty price of £1,750 (just over R36,000 at the time of writing).

If you do not pay for this package and land in London, you are liable for a fine of up to £10,000.

This process is managed by CTM, and the payment for quarantine packages can take some time to go through, especially if your bank’s anti-fraud department takes issue with a major international payment on your card as mine did.

Once this was done, I received an invoice confirmation number and was able to complete the other steps fairly easily. I received my Covid-19 PCR test on a Thursday and left for London on that Saturday, results in hand.

Upon arrival at Heathrow, I was told to follow the large red signs indicating the path through immigration for those arriving from “red list” countries.

This proved to be a lengthy exercise. I stood in a separate queue at immigration for three hours, held up by the many passengers who did not have all the necessary documents ready for their arrival.

Once I was admitted to the country, I was escorted by security to the luggage carousels and then to a separate holding pen for “red list” arrivals, where I was told that my hotel had changed due to overbooking at the original hotel assigned to me.

This did not take long to resolve, however, and I was soon escorted out from the pen to the Heathrow parking lot, where I boarded a bus with nine other people and was driven to my assigned hotel.

Upon arrival, I was checked in quickly and escorted up to my room, which had been deep-cleaned and disinfected ahead of my arrival.

My quarantine had begun, and I was to spend the next 10 days stuck in a hotel close to Heathrow airport.

The quarantine period is very well organised. I was told to contact reception for anything I needed, including if I wanted to walk around outside for a bit.

By the end of the first day, I found these escorted excursions to be crucial in preserving my sanity.

After calling reception for a walk outside, security knocks on my door within five minutes and escorts me downstairs to the parking lot, around which a perimeter of security guards is stationed to deter any potential escapees.

Three meals a day are also provided, and each morning you are given a menu to select your food choices for the next day.

Breakfast includes fruit juice and a standard fare within each meal comprising cereal, fruit, yoghurt, croissants, muffins, as well as a daily selection of hot food such as omelettes, hash browns, sausages, and bacon.

Lunch is a single light meal with a soft drink, and dessert and a soft drink are also offered with dinner.

The food has been great so far, and there has been a large selection of meals to choose from each day.

All meals are delivered with fresh plastic cutlery and in takeaway boxes with no plates.

On day two and day eight of my quarantine, I will be given a Covid-19 PCR test kit, which I will have to complete and leave outside my door for collection once completed.

If I test positive for Covid-19 on either of these occasions, my 10-day quarantine period will reset and I will be liable for the additional costs incurred.

Like all meals and other deliveries to my room, the tests are dropped off outside my door with a knock from room service to notify me that a delivery has arrived.

The room I am staying in contains all the amenities I need to last me for ten days of quarantine. It has a large double bed, a mini-fridge, a wall-mounted television, ample cupboard space, and a desk with various outlets.

There is a bathroom with a large shower and a single window in the main room with no balcony.

I had forgotten to bring a UK travel adaptor, but this was quickly resolved through an order placed on Amazon, which was delivered to my room within 24 hours.

The hotel will also provide additional supplies upon request, ranging from top-ups for instant coffee to dental kits that include a toothbrush and toothpaste.

The hotel Wi-Fi is not particularly fast, but it is stable enough for video games, Netflix, and any work I need to do.

There is no housekeeping service, however, which means it is important to keep your surroundings tidy yourself. There are cleaning supplies in my bathroom which help greatly in this regard.

So far, the experience has been pleasant albeit a little boring. Excursions to the car park are necessary to break up the monotony of the day, and I have been reading and taking online courses for set periods of each day after growing tired of Netflix-binging two days in.

It is strange to be cooped up in a hotel room for so long, and have found that video calls or online gaming with friends are a great way to pass the time and stay in touch while in enforced isolation.

Read: More South Africans are moving to the UK for work

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