Travelling in a pandemic - it's not so testing after all
Dozens of England fans embraced, jumped around and celebrated. This was June 2021, yet nobody was rushing over to tell them all to sit down and behave themselves. Because this was Gibraltar.
This 2.6 square mile British territory on the southern tip of Spain acted almost like a time capsule, like it was 2019 all over again.
That's because coronavirus restrictions were virtually non-existent on the Rock by the time of my visit last week.
Masks were not compulsory in hotels, bars or restaurants and there was no limit to how many people could gather and sit together – hence the joyous scenes at one sports bar after England beat the Czech Republic.
Crowds ambled down the busy main street seemingly without a care in the world.
That's not to say there were no traces of the existence of the pandemic. Customers were encouraged to sign in at some bars and masks had to be worn in shops but it was all a minor inconvenience compared with the freedoms during my stay.
The big Covid reminder, of course, was the testing procedure now necessary to allow international travel.
At the time of my visit, Gibraltar was the only realistic European option for someone like me in search of a bit of summer sun. Iceland, while undeniably a beautiful setting, was not quite what I had in mind.
These two destinations were among the dozen or so on the Government's 'green' travel list as of mid-June. I'd originally booked to go to Portugal but the Government, in its wisdom, put paid to those plans when that country was swiftly put back onto the amber list just weeks after coming off.
Amber list countries were not an option for me as quarantining on return was not practical due to work commitments. So Gibraltar it was.
The fact that the Rock is a British territory no doubt helped to ensure the whole thing was a smooth process. Diplomacy wasn't an issue, as Gibraltar is part of the UK.
That being said, there were some last-minute stresses. Gibraltar had been accepting UK holidaymakers with negative lateral flow Covid tests.
But, due to the influx of arrivals now Portugal had been amber listed, security was beefed up a week before I was scheduled to travel and a more stringent PCR test was now required for entry – at a cost of £120.
It was a slightly surreal experience arriving at Castlecroft Rugby Club's car park as a private healthcare worker turned up to carry out the PCR test. I couldn't help feel it was a bit like a scene from a crime movie where two characters meet up to carry out some nefarious activity away from prying eyes.
Anyway, after a quick shove of a cotton wool bud up the nose, the drive-thru Covid test was all done. Half an hour later a text came through to confirm I was negative. Money well spent.
Heathrow Airport was all straightforward, like travelling in normal times. On arrival in Gibraltar I was required to show the negative test certificate and a passenger locator form. It took no more time than usual to get through customs.
There were a couple of perplexed travellers in the queue who had apparently not filled in the locator form but there was no panic. They were taken to the side by a helpful member of staff and allowed to fill it out there and then.
After leaving the airport, I was then required to take a test at a station which had been set up directly outside. There was a wait of around 10 minutes in a queue before I was summoned to a window and another stick was shoved up the nose. And that was that, away you go and enjoy your holiday, sir.
An email confirmed I was negative a short time later. I went through the same process again the day before flying home. Again, it was all simple and took no more than half an hour out of the day.
Those scenes in the sports bar as England continued their Euros journey might seem reckless without context, given the fact we're still battling a pandemic.
But Gibraltar, to its credit, has put in place a system that works and shown international travel is possible in these uncertain times. It gives you confidence that you can travel safely and enjoy your holiday without too much hassle.
It of course benefits from being a tiny area. All resident adults are now double jabbed in the British territory. Daily cases are currently in low single figures. There has not been a Covid death recorded since March.
Everyone who arrives from the UK or elsewhere has to show evidence of a negative Covid test. And most of the UK adult population will soon be double jabbed.
Once back at Heathrow, there was one final test. Bleary eyed, I made my way to the highest floor of Terminal 5 where a testing centre had been set up. A quick swab of the nose and throat and it was all done. Another confirmation email came through 24 hours later.
Ironically, the biggest inconvenience of the whole trip was nothing to do with Covid, when the flight home was delayed due to safety checks on the plane.
It was a refreshing change to have something else to worry about.