Last night, many people in France were frantically emptying the contents of their holiday home’s fridge into the bin and shoving luggage into the boot of the car. Others were rushing to the airport, while buying plane tickets online, or elbowing their way through Gare du Nord to catch the Eurostar.
Government advice released at 10pm on Thursday set a countdown of 30 hours for people in France to travel back to the UK, or face a 14-day quarantine if they arrived back after the clock struck 4am GMT on Saturday.
But we, in France, are the lucky ones. On July 25, people in Spain woke up to the news that if they wanted to travel to the UK without quarantining, they’d have to do so by 11pm that same night.
Europe’s invisible boarders are suddenly glass sliding doors to be snuck through.
In an economy stretched tight, and still being unpicked at the seams, holiday-makers in France will lose money. This weekend, they’ve faced the unenviable choice of weighing much longed-for holiday time against 14 days of quarantine on their return in the UK.
The French tourism industry, already down €30-40 billion this summer, will also be hit hard for the foreseeable future. We will, at some point, have the ability to travel again. But who will have the confidence to?
Meanwhile families like mine, with members in Europe and the UK, find themselves separated in ways it was hard to believe possible a few months ago.
Europe’s invisible boarders are suddenly glass sliding doors to be snuck through, to see loved ones when timing and health measures allow.
I have a ticket for a two-week trip from Paris (where I live) to London (where my family lives) in September. I booked it a month ago, full of confidence that numbers showed France had beat back coronavirus.
As the UK government says, current figures show that’s not quite true. For the second day running, over 2,500 people have tested positive for Covid-19 in France in 24 hours. For the past seven days, the rate of infection has been over 20 cases per 100,000 people.
And I have three choices. Do I start packing my bags right now as I write this on Friday evening, and go to the UK tonight, even if that means I’ll have to quarantine when I come back to France?
Do I rebook my tickets for a future date, choosing at random from a drop-down calendar the date when I think quarantine-free travel might be allowed again?
Or do I leave my ticket as it is, and place my hope in the young people of France, now being blamed for propagating the virus, taking a more serious attitude towards social distancing measures to reduce numbers?
Here’s a worrying thought – am I one of the young people in France who has been so lax? If I do go home, will my parents in their late 60s and early 70s feel it’s safe to see me?
And what does the 30-hour time limit even mean? If it’s unsafe for me to travel from France on Saturday, how can I be sure I won’t put friends and family in danger if I travel on Friday?
Unfortunately, 30 hours doesn’t leave time for steps which might provide answers to the most pressing questions – like taking a Covid-19 test.
Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and blood tests are now widely available in France, with results available in 24 hours. But with the UK government’s announcement coming at 10pm on Thursday, even if everyone who wished to travel had got tested on Friday morning, none of us would know whether we were infected until after the 4am deadline had passed.
A negative test result wouldn’t make any difference to current UK quarantine rules in any case. The science available – testing and the StopCovid tracing app in France – has not been suggested as a possible route out of country-specific quarantine.
What we have is a blanket ban on the whole of France (even if infection rates differ around the country), an indiscriminate 14-day quarantine rule and an arbitrary time limit that makes it impossible to make the “right” decision.
Deep into the European Covid-19 crisis, the UK government position on quarantine shows no more nuance than it did seven months ago.
Only slightly more frustrating is the French government’s response of a reciprocal quarantine “with regret.” At least the UK quarantine is based on data, rather than retaliation.
This leaves families like mine, split across borders, with more questions than answers.
And the questions at stake are the sad and worrying kind that have become familiar to so many of us during the Covid-19 crisis. I’d like to know when I’ll be able to see my parents again. Or meet my best friend’s eight-month old baby. I haven’t been home since Christmas and I miss it.
In the end, I decided to stay. But should I have gone?
Jo York is a freelance writer based in Paris.