Travel in times of Covid… journey’s end

Back home. It’s cold, it’s rainy, but it is home and I’ve managed to do a lot during those two weeks in sunny Venice.

I’ve logged the details of my travel arrangements in these crazy times, so now it’s time to tell you about the last leg and offer a few thoughts on the whole business.

Coming home was, with one glitch I’ll come to, a piece of cake. I got to Marco Polo airport in good time, found the easyJet bag drop, talked to the friendly woman there who wanted to see my boarding pass, my negative antigen test and the barcode that proved I’d filled in the UK Passenger Locator Form.

After that it was through to the automatic bag drop, a very quick trip past security and into an airport that was quiet if not exactly empty. Since I’m no longer an EU citizen, I went through a different passport check lane. Stamps now seem mandatory, presumably to make sure none of us is spending more time in the EU than we’re allowed.

The plane was on time and pretty much full. Unlike the last few British Airways flights to Venice I’ve taken, we were on a stand too, not a bus, which makes for a much more pleasant boarding process. I had to show my passport and antigen test certificate once more and then it was onto the plane.

Two hours later I’m in Gatwick and being herded to the e-passport gates where there’s a steady queue building. And here is the first delay I encounter in the whole process. The woman in front of me struggles to get her passport recognised by the machine but gets through in the end. Mine generates three failure messages then tells me to ‘seek assistance’. Assistance turns out to be a quite grumpy border control chap patrolling the miserable lines. He says quite curtly this is either because I filled in the locator form wrongly, or the data for the locator form hasn’t been updated on the system or perhaps it’s the machine. Then he tells me, ‘You’ll just have to talk to a human being’ and points me to a long queue of people who’ve been similarly rejected by the e-gates and are waiting in line to get to a desk.

Great. Given the passenger in front of me had problems too I’m guessing it’s the blasted machine. So I try another one… and I’m through first time, with no more checks to come, and my luggage turns up swiftly too.

So if the e-gate turns you back and there’s a long queue for the desk I’d try that. The e-gate I used going into Venice was quick and efficient and the passport desk chap smiley and charming. We don’t do that kind of thing in the UK it seems. Nowhere in Gatwick was I asked for the pre-flight antigen test. Clearly the border control people are relying on the airlines to do that job for them.

The final piece of the puzzle is that £61 pre-booked PCR test which must be done by day two. Swab down throat which almost made me gag then in one nostril, off to Royal Mail priority post box shortly. All this just three days after I had a negative result in Venice to get me on the plane. I hope it’s an end to forms and tests and websites for a while. Seen quite enough of those already, thank you.

Some of the things I learned on this trip…

  1. The airports were the part that worried me most but turned out to be no problem at all. I sailed through with the right documentation and, that wayward UK e-gate machine apart, experienced no delays. This may be because I chose to go through Gatwick. I’ve heard horror stories of Heathrow to do with delays both in immigration and baggage delivery. Gatwick it is for me for now, and easyJet I found a sight more impressive than they were the last time I tried them a few years back.
  2. You need to understand this process before you start to travel. It’s complicated, short on information at times, and if you foul up too late you may find yourself without the qualification to fly.
  3. Shop around for your tests and check both price and reputation somewhere like TrustPilot. I wasted £48 on a PCR test from Randox, a company I’ll avoid like the plague in future. Next time round I think I’d buy pre and post flight self tests from one of the companies the government certifies, not pay an arm and a leg to a company like Boots who charge twice the price. Or, for the flight home, get a local test since that worked quite well in Venice. And it’s time the government abandoned that expensive and fiddly PCR test on return for a cheaper rapid one. This is, as even a Tory MP said the other day, a needless rip-off.
  4. Take a tablet or laptop with you if you can because these forms are not easy to fill in using a phone. And if you don’t have any web connected device… well, I honestly don’t know how you can manage. The authorities assume we can all go online with a smartphone at the very least. If you’re not comfortable with the technology you need access to someone who is.
  5. Whenever you can, print things out. Test results, locator forms, boarding passes, details of where you’re staying and your flight home. It’s a lot easier pulling out a piece of paper than searching for essential items on a phone.

Overall this trip was an eye-opener. I got to Venice, quarantined for five days, managed my work in the city and returned with no real hassle at all, just a lot of extra expense and swabs stuck up my nose from time to time. When I was there the city was as delightful as ever, even with the restrictions the pandemic brought, though on that last day the new green pass restrictions came in. I didn’t have time to check out the assertion that the UK NHS double jab barcode will get you inside places as easily as the local one. The museum I spoke to said yes so long as you bring your passport too. The restaurant where they ran the UK barcode against the phone app they’ve been told to use to check eligibility. It said no. Teething troubles, one hopes.

Clearly the current quarantine restriction on Italy, and the uncertainty of when it will be lifted, make travel there impractical for anyone who doesn’t have to go. Even when that does happen and the rest of Europe opens up, I do wonder if I’d think the expense and work worthwhile for a short break. I spent under two hours in the air getting to Venice and perhaps three times that trying to deal with the new rules and tests. Next time round it will be less because I think I know the system, but probably not by much. And the test regime, which included that duff Randox one, added up to just about the price of the return flight.

Given Covid’s reluctance to disappear and the money some people are making out of all these new processes, I suspect we’re going to be lumbered with testing as part of going abroad for quite some time. And next year we’ll have to pay £7 for a kind of visa waiver to enter the EU, one that lasts three years. In spite of what you may have read, this isn’t the EU’s ‘punishment’ of us for Brexit or anything to do with Covid. It’s a long-standing border control procedure the UK was supporting back before the referendum when that loon David Cameron thought he could win the vote and keep us in.

One more form to fill. One more obstacle to easy movement across the Continent. Being there is still wonderful but getting there is not. Flying hasn’t been an enjoyable experience for years and it just got a fair bit worse. I do wonder how many of those going through the hoops with this year’s new rules will feel when it comes to booking next time round, knowing what’s in store.

One of the easyJet staff told me the company was running a reasonable number of flights but probably at the capacity of the winter months, not the busy holiday season. Then she added, ‘They told us things won’t get back to normal till next summer.’ A quick smile. ‘But then that’s what they said last year too.’


Green Pass day arrives – will your UK one work in Italy?

Today’s the day new rules come in force in Italy. From now on you can only get into museums, galleries and indoors in restaurants if you show a green pass proving you’ve had two Covid jabs.


I tried using the NHS app barcode at the lovely Codroma restaurant in Dorsoduro at lunchtime. The staff kindly offered to see if it would work with the phone app they’ve been given to check green pass availability. The NHS barcode failed. I would not have been allowed to eat inside. It seems to be pot luck at the moment.

At the end of last month the government announced it was extending the mandatory five day quarantine for anyone coming from the UK. But at the same time it said it would recognise the double jab barcode you get in the NHS app. So Brits should be able to enter the same places as qualified Italians.

Naturally I had to check this out so this morning I headed off to the lovely Ca’ Rezzonico city museum down the way. The signs were up already.

Staff were out to deal with inquiries. An irate American couple were complaining they’d bought museum tickets only to be told their US vaccination paperwork wasn’t acceptable. Don’t know what the problem was there because I’ve read elsewhere this was OK if…

But I flashed my NHS app and was told yes, it was fine and I was free to go in. Though you don’t just need the app or a certificate but photo id such as a passport too.

So you may still have to quarantine from the UK but once that’s over you won’t be barred from all the cultural attractions.

And inside restaurants and cafes? Look. It’s sunny and 28 degrees here. I’m not even thinking of sitting inside. Everyone I’ve talked to on the hospitality front here this week seemed to think the UK app would be fine though they were hazy on the details.

In short this looks like one Italian Covid measure that won’t punish us poor Brits.

Just to be sure of everything though I wouldn’t rely on the app alone. Download a copy of your certificate and print out a hard copy as backup. Would be awful to be refused admission to the Accademia or the like because you had a flat battery.

Ca’ Rezzonico is a wonderful museum many tourists miss by the way. Highly recommended.


Devil’s Fjord… a whale’s tale

They live as a family. They perish as a family. How else? If any
manages to escape it’s our duty to chase it down and kill the
creature as gently as we can. Better than to leave it wandering
the open seas alone, only to starve and beach itself on rocks
somewhere. You are town people. Perhaps you don’t understand.
This is a harvest. We kill with kindness. But we kill. We kill them
all. No man or woman can live in a place like Djevulsfjord unless
they take a life from time to time.

Baldur Ganting

Years ago I sat next to an author at an event where we were asked about violence. My fellow writer voiced the opinion that she was willing to inflict any amount of cruelty on a human being, man, woman or child, in order to tell her tale. But she could never begin to consider writing about harming an animal.

This is one of the oldest dilemmas writers face. Dismember and burn alive people in the name of entertainment and it’s fine. Kill a cat and your inbox is going to fill with hatemail.

So let me say from the outset… my new mystery set in the Faroe Islands pitches you straight into this dilemma from the beginning. It’s the story of a decent, intelligent, charming townie couple, Tristan and Elsebeth Haraldsen, who’ve retired to a remote fishing village in the hope of bucolic bliss.

Tristan has taken on the job of District Sheriff. This is nothing to do with keeping the law except in one very specific respect: he is the officer who is in charge of seeing the whale hunt is carried out legally and responsibly according to the very strict rules laid down by the Faroes Government.

A good if naïve man, Tristan thinks this is almost a sinecure. An urban fellow with little knowledge of fishing village ways, he understands the whale hunt is a long-standing tradition in Faroes society, one which people honour and look forward to. An event the outside world may not appreciate, but a ritual dating back centuries that is part of his small, remote nation’s culture.

As he mows his grass roof word comes that a school of pilot whales has been seen offshore. Baldur Ganting, the leader of the local fishermen, arrives to tell him it’s time to give the green light to the ‘grind’, the hunt which will see the creatures first shepherded inshore, then beached on the sand where they will die in rivers of blood.

Tristan is about to appreciate the reality of the annual ritual he has always taken for granted… and find himself engaged in the mystery of two boys who go missing when the ‘blackfish’ are being slaughtered in the bay.

I knew when I set out to write this story that I was going to have to face up to the challenge of depicting the whale hunt with a stab of accuracy. The very tight rules and regulations surrounding it are readily available from the Faroes government on the web. There are also plenty of YouTube videos depicting what happens. I’m not going to run them here because frankly, unless you’re prepared, they’re pretty shocking.

If you see those videos it’s hard to think that the whale hunts are anything but cruel and violent. The pilot whales may not be endangered — yet — but equally they are no longer an essential food source. In fact there’s medical evidence to suggest they’re not healthy to eat at all because of mercury contamination among others in the flesh. Communities like the Faroes — and Iceland — have a long history of hunting species most of us wouldn’t touch, such as puffins and even seabird chicks. But that stemmed of old from economic necessity, living in such remote and difficult locations.

That’s no longer the case though the cultural claim to such traditions remains. And the counter argument to city folk citing the cruelty of whale hunting is simple and telling. Most of us eat meat, much of which has come through an equally barbaric system of factory farming. The pilot whales that die on the beach in the Faroes are creatures that enjoyed free, wild lives until they were hunted down. How does that compare with a battery chicken that never sees the light of day? A pig that is trapped in a muddy pen? Or a pheasant reared to be shot by a rich hunter then buried in the earth in their thousands because they are there for the killing, never the eating?

The Faroese slaughter around 800 whales a year. Something like 850 million chickens die each year for KFC alone.

As a writer I could take either side of that argument. But for Devil’s Fjord I opted to take neither. The locals who hunt the blackfish do so because it’s part of their culture, and, in their dying fishing community, for economic necessity. Those who oppose them do so for equally sound reasons. Tristan and his wife try to sit somewhere between the two and find it’s a decidedly uncomfortable place to be.

If you want to understand some of the history behind this, I recommend one of the few works in Faroese literature translated into English, The Old Man and His Sons, by Heðin Brú. Set in the 1930s, it depicts a society that is still feudal, one where the meat and the money from the whale hunt was essential to keep families alive during the long, harsh winter.

For the fictional village of Djevulsfjord, the world of Heðin Brú is still real. They need to kill those blackfish, and if outsiders fail to understand why… well, that’s their problem.

This is all an essential part of the canvas I wanted for a story that I hope reflects the essence of Scandinavian storytelling, the brutish savagery of the saga, an elemental conflict between light and dark, life and death, one where fate sometimes seems preordained. Perhaps by nothing more than the class into which you’re born.

It would have been dishonest to shy away from the bloody reality of the grind. Just as it would have been hypocritical to take a dismissive and censorious view of the reasons why it still happens.

More than anything, though, I felt it would be wrong to try and gloss over the reality of the slaughter when those whales get driven to the shore. This is the pivotal moment where the narrative kicks into action. Devil’s Fjord is, I hope, a compelling mystery in its own right. But it’s also a tale about what happens to remote communities when they’re ignored, deprived of support, looked down upon by the world at large, and left to fend for themselves.

The whales that die on Djevulsfjord’s shore are emblematic of the cruelty inflicted upon the pauper community that pounces on them for their flesh. Tristan and Elsebeth Haraldsen are about to find that out for themselves.

Which is why that quote from poor Baldur Ganting at the head of this post is at the very heart of the story.

Devil’s Fjord is available in paperback and ebook now from Canongate, and the current paperback of the week for the Sunday Times Crime Book Club.

If you hurry you could win a free copy and a lovely bottle of Icelandic vodka by going here.


Travel in times of Covid… preparing for the journey home

The time has come. I am now less than forty eight hours from my flight from Venice back to Gatwick. Preparations must be made otherwise I won’t be able to return to England and will just have to knuckle down and stay in Italy.


No. I have to get back. Preparing for your return from Italy is a three-part process. You’ll find them set out in full on the UK government website here. But in brief this is what it means for me as a UK citizen who has two vaccinations coming back from Italy under the present rules (which as we know may change at any time).

  1. I need the reference number for the PCR test I’ve ordered and will take by day two of my return to England.
  2. I need to fill in the UK passenger locator form. And include that reference number there.
  3. I have to take a simple rapid antigen test with a negative result here in Venice in order to get on the plane. This can happen any time in the three days before you travel.

As I wrote earlier, I have not one but two PCR tests booked. The first was ordered from a company run by chums of the Conservatives, Randox, without me checking it out properly first. The moment the order was confirmed, I knew it wasn’t going to work since they don’t offer a drop box close to me. I emailed them within minutes asking them to cancel the order and contacted them on Twitter.

As expected they ignored all that completely, sent off the kit anyway days later and trousered my £48 for something I can’t use. So I do not advise you use Randox who have already nabbed £500m of taxpayers’ money through other contracts, and do take a look at their Trustpilot reviews.

This is interesting too…

I have a test kit from a company called Zava which has arrived back home and can be posted back locally. They have also provided the magic reference number I need for the locator form and seem rather more professional when it comes to explaining how things work.

The locator form has to be filled in within the 48 hours slot before you arrive in the UK (not before departure). It’s the usual business of providing passport and travel details, along with addresses and that all-important reference number for your day two PCR test. There seems to be a system which allows you to set up a locator form account to make the process easier on future trips. This does save a partly-completed form which is useful. Once you’ve filled in the form you can print it out if that’s practical. But you’ll also receive an email with a barcode which can be shown at the airport as proof you’ve done it. More instructions here.

Now to the local rapid test. One way you can do this is by buying a test set to take out with you, doing it yourself, and having the results verified online. I bought one of these from a company called Cerulean for £29, a bargain compared to the £58 I paid to have the outgoing rapid test done at Boots. But when I was here I discovered there’s a local fit to fly service available too. You have to book it through pharmacies preferably a couple of days in advance at a cost that seems to vary between €22 and €25.

The idea of having someone else sort out all the paperwork was pretty attractive so I took my passport along and made an appointment through the pharmacy near Campo Santa Margherita, paid €25 and asked for the results in English. The UK say they will only accept results in English, French and Spanish so this seems important. I’m not sure but that may be why I paid €25 not €22, not that I was going to argue about it.

Being Venice, the place you go for the test is nowhere ordinary. It is the Scoletta Dei Calegheri, a handsome fifteenth century building in the Campo San Tomà. Once a meeting place for the city’s guild of shoemakers, it’s now the neighbourhood library and in times of pandemic a paid-for Covid testing point too.

I have to admit that, while I felt perfectly well, it was a bit nerve-wracking walking off to be swabbed. Had I been asymptomatic positive I would have had to quarantine for ten days. And where I’d quarantine — a specialist hotel, an extension to my apartment if it was available? — I’d no idea.

Reminding myself I felt fine, really, really fine, I walked up to the little campo and wandered in. There were two people at a desk, one to swab you, one to deal with the paperwork. It was quick, and in short order I was out with the news my test was negative. But you don’t get your certificate there. I had to walk back to the pharmacy where I booked it and they would print it out.

That was the only hiccup in the procedure. The chap behind the counter didn’t seem terribly au fait with the system or good on the computer. The first certificate he printed out didn’t just get the date and month of my birth wrong, but the year too. I know I look young for my years but I still don’t think I’d pass for four years old.

He apologised and corrected this with a new printout. But I do suggest you check the details, especially name, passport number and birthday, rather than assume they’re correct. I’ve no idea if that would have caused a problem at the airport but I wasn’t inclined to take the risk.

Even with the reprinted certificate the whole process took no more than thirty minutes and there I was with a fit to fly certificate. It’s a very good service but make sure you book a few days beforehand and check the details of the printout. You can read how the rapid Cerulean test works here — it promises a certificate within twelve hours. From what I’ve read you will be in for a fair bit of form filling online and frankly I’ve had enough of that right now.

That, as far as I can see, covers all the necessary preparations for flying back to England. The journey normally takes under two hours. In Covid times you can expect a fair bit more than that dealing with the bureaucracy, testing and form filling

When I get back I’ll update you on how the return went. And let me emphasise this again — I’m only passing on my understanding and experience of the system in my personal circumstances. Yours may differ so I suggest you make sure you understand what is required before you travel. None of this is particularly easy to master as you go along.