There’s a flight booked for Sunday night and seat number 16F has my name on it. It arrives at Gatwick a bit late but that’s OK, my oldest friend will be there to pick me up.
As I prepare last minute niceties, gifts and clothes for colder weather than I’m used to, I look back 20 months to my last trip.
Keeping calm and carrying on
I was in London in March 2020 as the world slowly opened its eyes to the relentless advance of covid sweeping into Europe from China, making its grisly way through Italy, France and Spain.
My friend’s mum, however, doubted she’d have to cancel her upcoming trip to Greece. No one was going to change any plans. England was taking its time, as if the Channel could somehow ensure an alternative outcome from everywhere else.
The UK was in denial mode as I flew home to France. Stepping onto the tarmac at Montpellier, the balmy afternoon heat and bright sunshine belied the serious intentions of the French government.
That night, France tuned in to the president at 8pm. We learned that we could no longer leave our homes without a permit stating the reason (medical, essential supplies or exercise). Masks were obligatory everywhere, schools and workplaces shut down, bars, cafes and restaurants closed, sports events and concerts cancelled and travel was practically forbidden. Some €45bn worth of aid measures were announced and 12 million people were furloughed. We sat there, a heady mixture of shock, confusion, and a slight excitement at this completely new way of living.
It was 17 March.
Meanwhile, England carried on as before. Going to football matches, the pub, school, commuting on packed trains, seeing friends with only a ‘suggestion’ from the prime minister that now might be the time to stop essential travel. They carried on like that for nine more days until finally on 26 March a lockdown finally came into force.
The human factor
This is well recorded and it heralded the start of the 20 months in which I could not travel to see my mum, in a care home with Alzheimer’s, and my brother, in another care home because of the consequences of a brain haemorrhage he suffered when he was 11. He’s now 57. They are both in very good hands, but they have no one else to visit them.
Mum may or may not know it’s me, but when I’m there our roles are reversed whilst I quietly sing ‘You are my sunshine’, as her mother sang to her as a baby, and as she, in turn, sang to me. I feel her weakly squeeze my hand. Communication.
It’s centuries away from the raucous laughs we used to share, the intimate chats, the nights at the theatre. A childhood song is all I have of her, and so it’s immensely important to me.
Being over 80, she qualifies as one of the bodies Boris Johnson is content to see piled high.
Empty vessels make the most noise
In literary terms, I’d describe the current UK Cabinet as Lord of the Flies meets the Famous Five, swigging ginger beer and scoffing almond thins as they come up with more japes, slogans, meaningless mantras, and endurance tests for the nation.
Brexit, the unspoken elephant in the room, results in the government being shouty and in constant combat mode rather than consistent and collegiate.
Britain had to get the still-unapproved vaccine out before the EU (lucky for everyone that the gamble paid off), come out of lockdown before Johnny Foreigner, keep the borders open, get the economy going, Eat Out to Help Out! Clap For Carers! Let’s save Christmas! Freedom Day! Global Britain! We’re the best! Ra Ra Ra!
Le Savoir faire
In July, the French government announced the pass sanitaire. To avoid a re-run of Autumn 2020, everyone working in the health sector, the military and fire service had to be fully vaccinated by 15 September. All residents over the age of 12 were made eligible so they would be double jabbed by the beginning of the school year.
The vaccine wasn’t made mandatory but without one, or proof of a negative test, you could no longer go to a bar, eat out, go to the cinema, a nightclub, take the train etc. The covid tests would no longer be free as from September, to make that option less attractive.
The morning after this announcement, 20,000 vaccines a minute were being booked on the Doctolib app (an application through which medical appointments are reserved). The pass sanitaire has been largely embraced by the population and as things currently stand, 86.2 percent of the population over the age of 12 are fully vaccinated. Masks are still worn in shops and indoor spaces.
Yet there are still 6,000 new cases everyday, and an average of 23 deaths.
As I’m closing my suitcase and checking I have my boarding pass and passport, my phone pings. Mum’s home has to close for 10 days as two staff members have tested positive for covid.
I confess my eyes welled up as I turned on the news. Tonight’s story is the British government not implementing any restrictions despite cases reaching a daily average of 48,000. I bitterly reflect how two of them work at my mum’s care home, and so now I can’t see her.
The British are dying at a rate of nearly 1,000 per week. Who is protecting them?
I don’t think I’m going to enjoy myself in London this time around. I’ll phone my brother.
I look at the sky tonight and wonder if one of the planes I see is the one headed for Gatwick with an empty seat, number 16F.