Part one: Si no vuelves … (If you don’t come back …)
An account of our recent trip to Spain in times of Covid-19, and our first post Brexit
A few weeks ago, half way across the Bay of Biscay on Brittany Ferries’ Pont Aven, returning from a long visit to Spain, I listened to Si no vuelves … (If you don’t come back). It’s one of my favourite tracks by the Cuban Reggaeton duo Gente de Zona. I had time to begin this reflection on our first trip to Spain in times of Covid-19 … and as third-country citizens. This visit had certainly been different in many respects, and it was an eye opener being able to compare how Spain and the UK have coped with and are coping with Covid-19 … and how, for the foreseeable future, we will have to cope with Brexit.
For many years my wife and I have spent long periods of our retirement in a southern Spanish pueblo blanco (white village). Our stays there are not just for pure enjoyment, but are also essential for my wife’s ability to live with her incurable but treatable cancer.
It used to be simple, in that as EU citizens we could come and go as we pleased – but not anymore. OK, so the pandemic had kept us away since January 2020, but now the 90/180-day rule makes for less flexibility, and deprives us of the freedom to visit and live in our own property for six months of the year. That sounds totally unacceptable, doesn’t it, and it is! Yet still people voted for it. Like so many other Brexit negatives, it simply was not on the ballot paper, just as it was not stated anywhere that a ‘leave’ vote would deprive ALL of us of our EU passports and OUR freedom of movement.
Brittany Ferries faces up to Covid-19
Starting at the beginning: Brittany Ferries did a good job of informing us of what would be needed for our arrival in Spain in late June. We needed to have proof of being double jabbed, and to complete a Passenger Locator Form (PLF). Once aboard the Galicia for our sailing out of Portsmouth, we were reminded frequently that the French government anti-Covid-19 measures were in force: face coverings to be worn in all public areas. Each lift had notices stating the reduced number of passengers permitted. Instead of being able to book our place in the restaurant at will, times were allocated to keep numbers to safe levels for each sitting, and to allow for reasonable social distancing. Apart from that, our cruise to Santander was normal and the sea state calm. As the ship docked in Santander, we returned to our car; the Brittany Ferries staff took our temperatures and relieved us of our PLR forms – all very efficient.
Third-country nationals on the road
Disembarkation in Santander was also swift and efficient. The young woman in passport control was friendly and pleasant as she stamped our passports: the first time for many decades this has been done … obligatory now that we are third-country nationals. From the port area of Santander it’s straight onto the autopista: a smooth start to our easy two-day drive south.
Double vaccinated and committed to being as cautious as possible owing to my wife’s ‘shielding’ status, what struck us everywhere during the journey – in villages, towns and petrol stations – was the level of compliance with the requirement to wear face masks in outdoor public spaces as well as in shops and indoor venues. We reckoned that 99 per cent of people were wearing masks outdoors and 100 per cent indoors where required. Although the Spanish government relaxed the outdoor requirement a few days later, 60 per cent or so of people continued – and still continue – to wear masks outdoors, including children from the age of six. No wonder we felt safe there, but now find the situation back in Devon somewhat disconcerting: mask wearing is at best hit and miss, and often scarcely evident.
So, what about Brexit? Although this was our first visit since that fateful day at the end of January 2020, our first as non-EU citizens, the people we had dealings with en route and those in ‘our’ village were welcoming as usual. We picked up with our many friends, mostly Spanish but a few Brits too, as if we had never been away, even after a pandemic-enforced absence of 19 months.
Conscious of being ‘invaders’ from a country with many more Covid-19 cases than Spain, we assured them – notably the mayor – that we were double vaccinated, and doing lateral flow tests regularly.
We were told how the village had lost three of its inhabitants to Covid-19 in the early stages of the pandemic – all elderly, and infected by young people who had arrived from elsewhere. Consequently, the ayuntamiento (town hall) had made every effort to manage the pandemic well, supplying all residents with face masks, including all pupils in the village school. In any case, face masks for different age groups were on sale in the pharmacy, and in the supermarkets on the coast, at very affordable prices. Indeed, we were even given free face masks when we bought petrol! Significantly, on television, politicians were always seen masked up: setting a good example, unlike our parliamentarians, with so many bare faced … (What word slips in most obviously there?!)
Fiesta foul up
Notwithstanding the precautions, the village did let its guard down briefly, with inevitable consequences. While we were there, a fairly low-key verbena was organised over a weekend in recognition of the much larger-scale fiesta which would normally be held in August – but cancelled yet again by the pandemic. As seemed inevitable, the result was a minor local Covid-19 outbreak, which affected a small group of youngsters. To their credit, the mayor and town council went in hard and fast, immediately closing down all municipal activities, including the village swimming pool. Within a few days there was a mass testing of over 200 people, and things quickly returned to normal.
Of course, the verbena was announced and punctuated at regular intervals, as is every fiesta, by a few very loud fireworks, prompting a complaint on the village Facebook page from a British resident. We find such attitudes rather crass … after all, when in Rome …! We love every aspect of the village life, and even miss the two herds of goats which were there when we first arrived 11 years ago, but have now been sold off as their owners have become too old to keep them. As a recent article in The Guardian reminds us: When in Spain …
A caring community
One thing we observed more than ever during this visit was the number of cuidadoras (carers) to be seen in the village taking their elderly or handicapped charges for a gentle walk. Social care is evidently well sorted. Many of the villagers keep fit walking back and forth along the perimeter road below our house. We often woke to the sound of their chatter as they made the most of the cool of the early morning or the late evening, during the heatwave in July and August. This may have been a habit developed during the very strict lockdown they had endured early on in the pandemic, being restricted to one kilometre from the village centre, with periods of the day allocated for particular age groups.
La campaña de vacunación (the vaccination campaign)
A few months ago, much publicity was given to the progress of the Covid-19 vaccination programme in the UK. What you won’t have heard is that, like several other EU countries, Spain overtook the UK some time ago; indeed, according to English El País: “In just eight months, Spain hits target of fully vaccinating 70 per cent of population. A total of 33.2 million people are completely immunized against Covid-19, a milestone no other country of comparative size has reached in such a short period of time.”
The Junta de Andalucía (regional government of Andalusia) has sent each adult citizen a very kind and clear letter explaining their status as double vaccinated, and enclosing a hard copy of their digital EU vaccination certificate… another sensible thing the UK government was too ‘special’ to consider.
Yet another reason why we felt safe in a country that had conducted what is one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns efficiently and with minimal fuss – and no need for jingoistic bragging. On 14 August, the Independent reported: “How the EU tortoise caught the UK hare in the Covid-19 vaccination race: Boris Johnson will have to stop boasting about his jabs ‘victory’ or face ridicule.”
As proof of how thorough the Spanish approach to Covid-19 has been: popular beaches are marked out either with flags or furrows made by tractors to designate the spaces allocated for each family or group, to ensure social distancing. Most people seemed to be adhering to this well, and some beaches even had one-way systems marked for accessing and leaving the beach. In one seaside town the toilet and changing huts every few metres along the beach were staffed by an attendant in a white uniform, with supplies of hand sanitiser and cleaning materials there to ensure the maintenance of Covid-19 hygiene.
Testing is widely and readily available and the EU track-and-trace system is in evidence with QR-code posters everywhere. We were often invited to scan them to check into a bar or restaurant but, because the UK chose to go it alone, our NHS app doesn’t work: British visitors can’t use the EU system. Interesting that, like others, we observed that a high proportion of those not sporting face masks (when Spaniards do) are … UK visitors.
Safe in Spain
So, why is it that compliance with mask wearing has been, and still is, so high in Spain, and why did we feel so much safer there? Could it be the result of stricter regulation when it was necessary, and much clearer guidance even when the regulations were relaxed? Then, of course, there is the good example set by politicians and other public figures whenever they appear on television. It’s clear what message they are imparting … while our own politicians, particularly those of one particular party, invariably appear bare faced, even in parliament. The particular lie they seem to be putting about is a dangerous one: ‘They think it’s all over …’
The double whammy: Covid-19 and Brexit in Spain
Part two: Return to Blighty
So, what preparations were necessary for our return to the UK? The message we had received all along was that we would need to have negative PCR test results to be able to board our ferry (though others were told that antigen tests were enough). We would also have to do PCR tests two days after arrival in the UK, even though we are both double jabbed. We booked and duly took PCR tests at a clinic in Nerja three days before our ferry crossing: not the cheapest, at around €90, and we paid €20 each extra to get the results the same day: €220 in total. The results (negative) arrived late evening, along with certificates that we were able to print out. As it happened, the Brittany Ferries’ check-in agent in Santander noticed that the clinic had entered the wrong passport number on my certificate; she said that it could be a problem when we arrived in Plymouth. A quick phone call to the clinic produced – within minutes – a new PDF certificate sent by email, while we were still in the queue to board the ferry.
What a nonsense the UK system proved to be! The government’s Passenger Locator Form (PLF), which has to be filled in online, cannot be started until 48 hours before arrival in the UK. Given that we had a two-day drive across Spain to Santander, and wanted to make sure we had printed out hard copies of all the paperwork before we left, our departure was delayed by a few hours. Why this arbitrary time of 48 hours? Who knows, but whilst it is fine for air passengers, it makes things quite tight for anyone driving a distance to a ferry. We managed it, but had our ferry crossing been the longer one to Portsmouth, it would have been impossible.
Apart from the stress resulting from the timing of the PLFs, our journey across Spain went smoothly, with our usual overnight hotel stop. Spanish cross-country routes make for relatively stress-free driving, being far less congested than UK roads. The autovía system – free two-lane motorways – is very efficient, and generally well provided with service stations and good roadside restaurants. We arrived at the port in good time.
As expected, boarding took much longer than used to be the case, owing to the need to check Covid-19 paperwork as well as travel documents. The policeman who checked our passports mentioned that he and his colleagues were suffering from repetitive strain injury from having to stamp all passports! As always, it was sad to be leaving Spain …
The voyage across the Bay of Biscay and through the Western Approaches was calm again. However, we prepared to disembark with some trepidation, anxiously making sure that we had to hand all the relevant paperwork: our PLFs, the certificates for the negative PCR tests done a few days before (in my case on my phone owing to the error made by the lab), evidence that we had booked day-two PCR tests … and, of course, our passports.
As it happened, when we got to Plymouth passport control, the Border Force officer only asked for our passports. As soon as he checked them in, his computer gave him all the other information instantly! We needn’t have worried about hard copies of the PLFs and PCR evidence, though the officer said that it was advisable to have the paperwork as the computer may not be updated for all travellers arriving.
Day 2 PCR shambles
However, the UK rules demanded that returning double-jabbed Brits had to produce a negative PCR result, or quarantine for the necessary time, and this rule still had one unpleasant surprise for us. The day after arriving home we did the day-two PCR tests, with the kits we had ordered ten days previously and which had arrived in good time. Using the 24-hour-mail packaging supplied by the testing laboratory, we posted our samples in the priority postbox at our local post depot. A few days later we were shocked to learn via email that our samples had arrived five days after posting – too late to be analysed.
Communication with the laboratory has been unsatisfactory – in fact, very frustrating: they refused to give us the details of their contract with Royal Mail, which assured us that they would compensate us for the £118 cost of the tests if we could prove that the postal service had delayed the samples. As I write this, we are pursuing the possibility of using the small claims court; otherwise we may make a claim via the credit card we used to pay for the test. Not much consolation, but we are certainly not the only victims of an arrangement in which the government has given the green light to dozens of cowboy operations to fleece the public, who have had no option other than to pay for day-two PCR tests.
Si no vuelves … ¡Pero sí, volveremos! (If you don’t come back … Of course we’ll come back!)
As regards the immediate future in Spain, when pupils return to school, they will still be wearing face masks, and taught in bubbles. Then, of course, the Spanish vaccination campaign to jab children of 12 and upwards began weeks ago whilst, as described by Emma Monk in her recent article, here the situation was yet again one of prevarication, until finally announced a few days ago.
On 16 September, the Junta de Andalucía announced that the region is now in pandemic level one, and published the new, vastly reduced, restrictions: much more freedom for hospitality and entertainment venues, and for family celebrations and so on … but face masks still obligatory for indoor venues, and recommended outdoors! (British visitors need to be aware of this!) In a local online publication, the new measures were accompanied with the exhortation:
It’s hard for us, but we all made it (and now we have to keep it)
All #Andalucia is already in level 1.
These are the new measures in place from now on.
As we finish this article, very much a narrative of our travel experiences over the past couple of months, the UK restrictions are being reduced: no more amber list; from 4 October no more pre-departure PCR tests for fully vaccinated travellers returning to England from any country not on the red list. Later in October, returning travellers will be able to replace the day-two PCR test with a cheaper rapid lateral flow test. All this will reduce the stress we experienced, but not all scientists are happy about the changes! However, as just mentioned, British travellers abroad need to remember to respect the arrangements in the country they are visiting.
We all hope that Covid-19 will fade away in time, but we are stuck with Brexit and with being treated as third-country nationals. The former kept us away from our Spanish home for 17 months, but Brexit will keep us away for six months in every year for many years to come … Once our 90/180-day allowance has been used up, we wouldn’t be able to rush back if there was a burglary, fire or flood – or squatters – this being a problem currently in Spain. We’ll have to live with all this, but, yes, we will definitely be back to Spain as often as we can.
Footnote: over the duration of the pandemic so far, Spain has managed pretty well after a shaky start; Spain’s health service and scientists deserve credit. The assessment offered in this report on a recent face-to-face conference of Spanish epidemiologists makes interesting reading.
Postscript: My daughter and family were booked to come and stay with us in Spain for a much needed break. They pulled out at the last minute, losing their £500 air fare, when they worked out the cost of the necessary PCR tests at both ends. And then there was the complication of 2x double-vaxxed adults, a 13- year-old and an 11-year-old , each subject to different rules. What a bloody shambles it has all been… and not getting any better.