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Between Brexit and COVID-19: UK tourism faces hard times

Susan Bonney-Cox
October 1, 2021

Traveling in a global pandemic can be challenging, but add the complications of strict travel rules resulting from Britain's split from the EU and things become really confusing and expensive. Susan Bonney-Cox reports.

A road leading through the Scotish Highlands
The usually-busy tourist roads in the Scottish Highlands are rather empty at the momentImage: Susan Bonney-Cox/DW

When Britain added Germany to its list of green countries in early August, my family was delighted. We had been waiting since December to literally be given the green light to travel across the English Channel. The main reason was that my daughter, who had been studying in Scotland, had become stranded in Germany while visiting home over the Christmas holidays due to various lockdowns and travel restrictions. 

The spread of the Delta coronavirus variant in the UK made traveling back impossible for most of that time, and travel restrictions on both sides as well as the prospect of having to self-isolate – potentially in very expensive hotel quarantine in the UK – put the breaks on any of our UK-related travel plans for a long time.

By the time that Germany was added to Britain's green list, both my daughter and I had been fully vaccinated, and she had, in the meantime, completed her studies remotely. So we decided to go over to the UK for only a few days in order to retrieve her belongings from her shared student apartment.

Scotland,  Greig Street foot Bridge in Inverness
We had been waiting for many months to make the trip from Germany to Inverness in ScotlandImage: picture-alliance/robertharding

Time for a check-list

This, however, meant having to drive to Scotland, rather than taking a flight, adding the small complication of transiting though a third country – in our case the Netherlands – in order to board the ferry from Rotterdam to Hull. According to British authorities, the Netherlands were considered an "amber" country.

For over a year, I've spent much of my time at work checking and updating our articles on the various travel restrictions within Europe, which should have put me in an ideal position to organize this five-day trip to Scotland without running into too many difficulties. Especially in view of the fact that both my daughter and myself have both German and British passports.

And yet, I needed to resort to various check-lists to ensure that I didn't overlook something or get it wrong altogether, or else we'd be stuck in Rotterdam.

To travel we needed to do the following:

  • produce a negative COVID-19 test result in English containing our passport numbers among the details listed, which had been performed within 48 hours of our journey to the UK (in Germany, rapid antigen tests are available free of charge)
  • arrange for a "day two" test for our arrival in the UK (this is a test kit that can be ordered online, costing between £45 (€ 53/$62) and £120 (€140/$164). It will be sent to the address where you are staying, and you will have carry out the test yourself at home by the second day after arrival. The test swab is then posted to the laboratory by mail.
  • fill out the so-called Passenger Locator Form (PLF) for British authorities 48 hours before our arrival.
  • Fill out the so-called Advanced Passenger Information form for British border control.

At least being fully vaccinated prevented us from having to go into quarantine on arrival from the Netherlands in the UK or the expense of having to do any further tests. The ferry company listed the name of a test kit provider in the UK, which made arranging the so-called day-two tests a fairly easy task.

Contents of a UK day two test kit
Everyone entering the UK regardless of vaccination status has to purchase a "day two" test kitImage: Susan Bonney-Cox/DW

Once I had paid the £116 (€136/$159) for the two tests for my daughter and myself, we were sent a code which was needed to complete the PLF. This harmless sounding form was a bit of a nightmare to fill out; I have traveled a fair amount within Europe during the pandemic including to destinations such as Greece, France, and Belgium, but never have I had to answer such complicated questions.

It was an especially a nerve-racking experience as at every turn on the form there were reminders of the huge fines we could face for giving false answers. At least the questions were in English, which is my first language, but still I was left feeling rather uneasy and worried that I might have inadvertently given a "wrong" answer without realizing. I have no idea how non-native speakers are supposed to manage to fill this form out.

On the move – or so we thought

Our departure day arrived. We stopped by our local "drive-through" test center before heading off. Twenty minutes later, my negative test result arrived in my email inbox. Phew – that was the first hurdle taken. Nothing could stop us now, we thought.

I had been driving for just over an hour when the unexpected happened: my car broke down. This was the one unforeseen event that I had not considered on any of my pre-travel check lists! With the clock to my ferry check-in time ticking down I called the German motorists association of which I am a member.

Normally when this sort of thing happens, they can provide a replacement hire car and the journey can be continued with little delay. But I was going to the UK, and their hire cars are not allowed to cross the English Channel anymore! This is yet another aspect of the minefield that is Brexit that many people might not consider at all – until they have to.

Thankfully, the motorists association put out an emergency call to all car rental businesses, asking for help so I'd be able continue my trip. To my amazement about 20 minutes later, I was called by a big international car hire company, letting me know that they had a small vehicle for me.

I quickly picked up the replacement car, mentioning again that I was going to Britain with it, and then we speedily made our way towards Rotterdam. After a stressful two-and-a-half hour non-stop journey, we arrived at the ferry port with only 3 minutes to spare before the check-in would close.

A white car on a ferry car deck
We just made it onto the ferry from Rotterdam to Hull in time for the sailing in my replacement carImage: Susan Bonney-Cox/DW

At check-in, we needed to present our ferry tickets, passports, negative COVID tests, and the printed version of the passenger locator forms. Once all had been processed we were handed a cabin key, and were able to continue on towards the ferry. Before boarding the boat we had to go through border control (Netherlands), where we handed over our British passports for a final check.

The officer seeing the German car registration asked us where we lived. Telling him that we were based in Germany he surprised us by demanding to see a German residency letter. This is because ever since Brexit, anyone from Britain living in Europe has to be able to prove their right of abode. Thankfully handing our German passports to the border control officer resolved that matter.

Relieved at having made the connection we were both happy to relax in our cabin on the overnight ferry. Had we had to cancel we would have lost all the money that was invested in this trip, as neither the cost of the ferry ticket, the self-catering accommodation in Scotland, nor the test kits ordered in the UK were refundable.

Good morning England, hello Scotland

On arrival in Hull the next morning, we joined the line of cars waiting to clear UK border controls. Slowly the cars snaked their way to the booths where passports were checked and questions asked. We had to explain where we live, how long we were intending to stay in the UK, and what the purpose of our visit was.

Fields with sheep in Yorkshire, England as seen from a car
Once clear of the port, we got to enjoy idyllic countryside on our eight hour drive from Hull to ScotlandImage: Susan Bonney-Cox/DW

When we arrived at our self catering rental in Scotland some eight hours later, we discovered that the "day two" test for me had arrived – but not for my daughter. As we were going to be making our way back to Germany in just a matter of days, I quickly followed the instructions in the box and completed the test – putting the swab with the specimen into the transport container and then posting it in a mailbox. I was also hoping that the result of this PCR test would arrive in time to spare me the expense of having to take a further test to be able to return to Europe.   

Over the next few days in the Scottish Highlands it was quite noticeable that tourism had returned – though most seemed to be English-speaking domestic staycationers. The restaurants were busy despite having considerably reduced menus due to supply shortages. A woman working at a local smoothie bar told me that they could currently only serve two flavors to their customers, as supply problems meant they didn't have the fresh fruit or tropical juice mixes to make the smoothies they usually have on offer.

Britian, a man standing in front of empty shelves in a supermarket
Empty supermarket shelves are now a common sight in the UKImage: Henry Nicholls/REUTERS

These shortages were also apparent in supermarkets, which looked like they usually do a few hours ahead of closing time on the eve of a major public holiday. Many shelves were empty and looked to have been so for a while. These supply problems in the UK have many reasons, including a lack of lorry drivers, the effects of Brexit and a shortage of CO2 for packaging – to name but a few. Thankfully while we were there, fuel shortages were not yet a problem.

In Scotland, most places were open for business and face masks were worn indoors. This, however, was not the case in England, where wearing face masks is no longer mandatory.  

Time to return home

Having sorted and packed what we could of my daughter's belongings into the rental car and given away anything that didn't, it was time to make the return trip. Before setting off we ordered two COVID tests to be done at the ferry port, as my daughter's test kit had never arrived, and the result of my "day two" test was still pending.

This added another €80 (US $ 94/ £68) to our travel expenses, but we really had no other choice, as a negative result was needed in order to be able to enter the Netherlands. We also had to fill in the quarantine declaration for the Netherlands, which compared to the British PLF was easy to do and was completed in a matter of minutes.

People in face masks waiting in the test center at the Port of Hull for their results
There is a wait for test results at the ferry terminal before passengers can proceed to the ferryImage: Susan Bonney-Cox/DW

On arrival at the port in Hull we had to park at the terminal building to have our paperwork checked. We were then directed to what used to be the foot passenger waiting area, but which was now used as a test center. Once our identities had been checked and entered onto a paper, we were sent to the testing area. Afterwards we had to wait until we were handed a paper with the test results in order to leave the building and get back into the car to progress to the check-in counter for the ferry.

After a long day of driving and the stress of tests and paperwork, we were glad to find our cabin on the ferry to relax for a little while. Much to my frustration, an hour before sailing the results of my "day two" PCR test arrived – too late to be of any use to me.

Ships in the night

The overnight-ferries, which are usually busy at this time of the year with couples and families enjoying a mini-cruise, currently carry a strange atmosphere. On both our crossings, the passengers seemed to consist of a handful of couples with young children and lots of men, who we guessed had to be truck drivers.

They usually have their own restaurant and bar area, but due to the pandemic these had been closed, and only one restaurant on board was open. When we were not in our cabin, both my daughter and I were painfully aware of often being the only visible women when moving around the boat.

Ferry leaving port at night
The overnight ferry seems to currently have truck drivers as its main passengersImage: Susan Bonney-Cox/DW

On arrival in Rotterdam, we had to present our passports to border control as per usual and were later asked by customs if we had anything to declare. All proceeding smoothly, we continued our drive for a few hours. We only became aware of crossing the land border into Germany by the simple sign on the road-side. We collected my repaired car, transferred my daughter's belongings and returned the hired car, which now had an extra 2,000 kilometers (1,243 miles) on its clock, and really needed a good wash by now. And thus, our eventful grand tour was over.

A hand in an airport holding a mobile phone with a covid passport displayed
We increasingly rely on mobile phones – which could soon become very expensive in the UKImage: ROBIN UTRECHT/dpa/picture alliance

One other aspect that merits a mention here is that currently within Europe, mobile phones can be used at no additional roaming costs. But with the UK completing Brexit, roaming charges will soon apply once more, making the use of mobile data an expensive pastime for future travellers.

This is a major blow, as many of us have come to rely on our smartphones especially during the pandemic, where we store our COVID vaccination passports and test results, as well as using our phone to keep us safe by disrupting chains of infection by using warning systems. Many people have also come to depend on their phones as their only means to keep in touch with loved ones, using data services for various video calling platforms.

Thankfully, with my daughter now having returned to Germany, this will no longer be an issue that will cause any problem for our family – that is until she embarks on her next adventure.