Monday May 17, 4.30am: as I stand in a queue at Heathrow for waiting for check-in, Michael, a British Airways employee who’d clearly had far more coffee than me, is excitedly moving barriers to create the most efficient queuing system.
I’ve not been on a plane for over a year, but already, the scenario feels weirdly normal.
A few days earlier, Vida Boylan, a tester for Covid travel test provider Qured, had knocked at my door to conduct the first of three coronavirus tests booked for my trip to Portugal on the momentous day international travel restrictions would be eased.
It took 24-hours to receive my negative result, which I uploaded, along with my Passenger Locator Form, as required by the Portuguese government, onto the British Airways website. My second lateral flow test would come with me to Portugal, while the third would be waiting when I got back home.
Altogether, these measures added £300/€348 to the cost of my trip.
When I arrive at the airport, check-in is smooth. BA have already verified my documents online and there are no queues at security. All-in-all, the whole experience is far less stressful than I remember.
Staff serving food on the first BA holiday flight back to Lisbon. PA Photo/Scarlett Sangster.
Inside a very quiet Terminal 5, I buy a coffee and wait for my fellow passengers to arrive. It is, I’m told, a full flight. But why had these passengers raced to book a place on the first escape? The answer, I would soon discover, is not necessarily for a holiday.
Scarlett Sangster in Lisobn. PA Photo/Scarlett Sangster.
I’m going to see my boyfriend – he lives out there,” she tells me. “It won’t be touristy; I’ll just be staying in his flat and letting him show me around. The testing is expensive, but after not seeing the people you love for such a long time, it drives the price down.”
Jill Osborne, 48, is also looking forward to a reunion. “I threw caution to the wind a couple of weeks ago, hoping to meet family and friends over in Lisbon. I just prayed because the numbers were going down, Portugal might be on the green list.”
Meanwhile, new parents Natacha and Miguel Rodrigues, who both work at Frimley Park Hospital in Hampshire, are taking their seven-month-year-old son Gabriel to meet his grandparents for the first time. “I feel very emotional,” says Natacha. “It’s been a challenging and scary time without hands to help.”
Needless to say, the atmosphere outside gate A13 is far from anxious. Despite the masks, which are mandatory throughout the airport, and the added cost of testing, everyone seems to feel the benefits of travel far outweigh any added stress caused by the new measures, or any risk they might be taking to get away.
Claire Madden and Steve Wilson, both 52, talk about their experience so far: “We flew last summer. It’s a lot quieter now than it was at the end of August. We left plenty of time, anticipating it would be difficult, but it’s been really smooth. I think that’s because British Airways allow you to upload all your documents, your negative PCR test and your Portugal passenger form, before you get here. If we were 20-years older, it might have been more difficult to use the system. But for us, it was really easy.”
Boarding the plane, the BA crew greet us with warm smiles and an antiseptic wipe. We wear facemasks for the duration of the flight, except during the meal service. But aside from that, the flight feels pretty normal.
I ask a member of the crew if there are measures I hadn’t noticed. Sarah Gourley, inflight lead, explains: “We’ve introduced several measures; as well as the sanitising wipes, we also disembark and bring people onto the plane in smaller numbers. Everyone’s wearing masks and we’ve limited the time people can spend walking up and down the aisles. We also clean and sanitise the bathrooms after every use.”
Landing in Humberto Delgado Airport, it takes less than 20 minutes to get from the plane, through immigration and customs with my non-EU passport. Restrictions in Portugal include a six-person limit on gatherings indoors and outdoors. Shops and restaurants are all open, along with cinemas and theatres, though with reduced opening hours. There’s also a 10.30pm curfew on restaurants and cafés, while bars and nightlife remain closed.
Unlike the UK, Portuguese authorities require you to wear a face mask in all public places, including outside. This is relaxed a little on beaches, where you can remove your mask after setting a designated area for your group of six –although I was warned I could be fined up to €100 if I initially stepped on to the sand without a mask, or failed to comply with social distancing rules.
These measures sound pretty strict, but once you get over the idea of a face-mask-shaped tan-line, Lisbon feels no stricter than London.
So, was the sand packed with British tourists? The answer is no. If I’m honest, Lisbon was ghostly quiet. Of course, it was only day one, and I’d already been told 5,500 Brits were due to land across Portugal in the first 24 hours of UK restrictions lifting. But having spoken to my fellow travellers, I’m mildly sceptical about how many of these Brits really are ‘tourists’.
Visitors to Lisbon certainly won’t get the same experience today, as they would pre-pandemic. That said, I rather enjoyed the calm. There were no crowds, the locals were friendly, and the sun was glorious. If anything, I rather savoured my little slice of Portuguese life, almost completely tourist-free.
Perhaps it won’t be a flood, but more a gentle trickle back to travel. But one thing’s for sure: travel definitely feels safe. And Portugal still offers a beautiful destination for a quiet escape from the British and Irish weather.