For three weeks in England I dodged the Omicron bullet. But on Christmas Eve, just three days before I was due to fly back to Australia, I saw what I had been dreading: the faint pink line on a lateral flow device, the rapid antigen tests handed out free of charge by the NHS in packs of seven. I was COVID positive, and my travel plans were in tatters.
Coming here was always going to be a risk, but I hadn't seen my parents in more than four years. My father went into dementia care in August, and two days later my mother slipped in the shower and broke her arm. In the circumstances, not coming was even riskier.
When I booked through Expedia in early October, it still wasn't clear if vaccine passports would really be a thing, but the Qantas-badged Emirates flight from Melbourne to Birmingham was cheap enough ($2800 return, about 50 per cent more than I might have paid pre-COVID) that it seemed worth the bet.
Three weeks later, I received an email from Expedia saying Qantas had cancelled the Singapore-to-Melbourne leg, and hence the entire ticket. I opted for the refund they were offering, and rebooked direct through Emirates.
Getting an acknowledgement from Expedia, let alone an actual refund, was harder; I had to raise it as a credit card issue through my bank for that to happen. My takeaway: book direct or via a reputable real-world travel agent, because you're going to need to deal with a person, not an AI chatbot, when things go wrong.
A week before I was due to fly, Omicron began to sweep through England. I seriously considered cancelling, but the fundamental reasons for the trip remained unchanged so I didn't.
This is my first Christmas in England in more than 30 years (trips back usually happen in summer, for obvious reasons). I was travelling solo, too, so after spending two weeks with the folks in the Midlands I gave myself permission to go to Old Trafford to watch my team, Manchester United, play (a Liverpool supporter I met here quipped he didn't realise they were planning to start; their form has been indifferent, to put it mildly).
Two days out, with my train ticket, my £150 cheap seat in the Stretford End and my swanky hotel room booked, the game was cancelled. I decided to go to Manchester anyway, and from there to London, to catch up with friends and family, as planned.
Manchester is a vibrant industrial city reinventing itself for the post-industrial age. I ate in hipster cafes, drank in the most beautiful bar I have ever seen (The Refuge), went to the gallery (an institution that is intensely and productively interrogating its own curatorial practices), to the cinema (to watch St Olivia Colman in The Lost Daughter), and ate a 10-course degustation on my own (not sad at all) in Wood, a gorgeous restaurant owned and operated by the 2015 winner of MasterChef UK, Simon Wood. I had a triple-vaxxed, fully masked, socially distanced blast.
The Refuge, Manchester. Photo: Karl Quinn
In London I stayed and caught up with friends. The Tube was almost empty, buses too, but the streets were packed. Inside, masks were de rigueur, outside not so much. I had a very clear sense that everyone was over this virus, though there was no sign of the nutjobbery we've had to endure in Australia.
I didn't catch COVID from all the gadding about, though. I caught it from my beloved aunt and uncle, retired, in their 70s, largely homebodies. But the virus is everywhere here, with one report claiming around one in nine people has been infected in the past seven days, so the odds were I was going to get it somehow.
Still, when I saw that pink line on Christmas Eve, I hoped it might be a false positive. I wanted to see my father at least one more time in the care home before leaving. And I really did want to leave.
My lateral flow test (positive). Photo: Karl Quinn
One of my mother's elderly friends told me I needed to book a PCR test via the NHS, I couldn't just turn up, and she gave me a number to call. But rather than clog up the phone lines I tried the website. An hour later, after a Kafkaesque nightmare in which I was repeatedly looped around the online registration system, which then booted me to the app, which in turn booted me back to the online registration system, I dialled. Half an hour later I had a stick up my nose at a testing centre, a model of efficiency by comparison - probably because no one was able to book an appointment. Cunning.
Christmas morning I still hadn't received my result so I headed to Birmingham airport to take my pre-paid pre-departure PCR test, still clinging to the thin sliver of hope of a false positive. Without it I couldn't fly, even if the NHS test gave me the all-clear.
But as I left the airport my phone pinged. The NHS result: positive. Mum's Christmas lunch for nine was off. And so was my return flight.
The NHS app gives me the bad news. Photo: Karl Quinn
The operator in the Emirates office had had plenty of practice by the time I rang. "Every single call today has been about people rescheduling because of COVID," he said. He had one seat for me on January 6, the earliest I could fly. And it would cost me an extra $1000, though he assured me I could get it back on insurance (as of time of writing, this has yet to be tested).
Thankfully, my symptoms are mild, and after just a few days I feel I'm on the mend. Whether that's because Omicron is inherently milder or because I was double vaxxed (with AstraZeneca) before I got here and boosted (with Pfizer, courtesy of the overstretched but still remarkable NHS) eight days before infection I can't say.
Of course, there's still a lot that could go wrong. I need to return two negative lateral flow tests 24 hours apart after day six before I am deemed clear (confusingly, the NHS tells me I can then leave the house, but also that I am supposed to remain in isolation for 10 days). I will also need to return a negative on a prepaid, pre-flight PCR test at the airport within 72 hours of departure (and hope I get my result in time). And I have to pray that the flight itself goes ahead - crews are not immune to this virus. No one is.
All in all, it's not a great time to be travelling internationally. The risks are real, the costs considerable, and the inconvenience immense. But given the circumstances, I'd do it again regardless.
See also: Europe is becoming a mess for travellers