We knew my dad had a serious heart problem but it was still a shock when one night at the beginning of 2019 I woke to find my mum on the webcam telling me that there was an ambulance at the house and that he was being taken to hospital. I immediately booked a flight from Denmark to Heathrow and by three o’clock the next day I was at my dad’s bedside in Bristol. It turned out he’d had a massive heart attack. Thanks to the amazing care of the doctors and nurses at the Bristol Heart Institute three weeks later he was discharged and went home. I don’t know how any of us would have got through that period if I hadn’t been able to get to my parents to support them. Now, the increasing Covid travel restrictions have left me and my family living in constant fear that if my parents (both of them have serious health problems) need us again we won’t be able to get to them. Frustratingly, nobody – not the politicians, not the media, certainly not people begging for ever tighter restrictions – seems to acknowledge what this is doing to people like us who’ve made our homes abroad and are separated from people they love by the barriers coming down across national borders.
Over five million UK citizens live abroad. One in ten British citizens. Most of those people will have family back in the UK. There are also over 6 million foreign nationals currently living in the UK. Throughout the world there must be tens, probably hundreds, of millions of families separated by travel restrictions. Of course not all situations will be the same. I am an only child so I find it perhaps harder not being able to reach my parents than I would if I had a brother or sister living near them. My parents’ medical issues are another issue. I have young children who haven’t seen their grandparents for over a year now. Each day, they talk about how they’re looking forward to seeing them. A year is long in the life of a five year old. Or for that matter for a retired couple who’ve barely left the house since the pandemic erupted. Thank God for the internet, but opening Christmas presents over FaceTime isn’t the same. Perhaps some ex-pats find their situation easier than mine, or are at least better at coping than I am. Every new rumour of increased restrictions causes a surge of panic and the situation is taking its toll on my life in many ways. At the same time I’m also sure there are many emigrants whose situation is much more difficult.
A few days ago the Independent ran a story about a woman who was stuck at an airport in Spain because the COVID test she’d taken before her departure from Cuba was no longer valid for her connecting flight to Britain. But the reason the story was newsworthy was the Kafkaesque absurdity of her situation: neither allowed to fly onwards or walk out of the airport to arrange another test – Tom Hank’s fictional extended sojourn at “The Airport” was naturally mentioned. For the more than three hundred days before that that the woman had been forcibly separated from her own children back in Britain nobody in the media was interested. I find it hard enough as grown man not to be able to visit my parents. I honestly don’t know how I would cope if I was kept apart from my children for that length of time. How many more stories like this – or worse – haven’t we heard?
‘Should have happened a year ago’, ‘Shut all the airports and keep them all out!’ and ‘Who’d go on holiday during a pandemic anyway?’ I know I shouldn’t read the BTL comments of online newspapers or responses to Twitter posts but this pretty much covers the range of opinion I’ve found there. The lack of awareness that travel bans aren’t just stopping disease carrying foreigners getting into a country, or selfish citizens from jetting off for a fortnight of sun and sangria, is depressing. I understand that people are calling for these restrictions because they make them feel safer. But for my family and me travel bans have the opposite effect, they undermine what we need to feel safe – the knowledge that in emergency we will be able to get on a plane and get to the people we love and the hope that it won’t be long before we’ll all be reunited without there being an emergency.
I’m not saying travel restrictions are unnecessary, but I am tired of hearing that their only consequences are economic damage and people having to forgo the luxury of a holiday. Politicians and journalists need to start acknowledging the effect their policies are having on the millions of families that are being kept apart. This pandemic will be with us for some time, so once the problem is acknowledged we need to start working towards solutions that will let families travel safely so that they can be together.