If ignorance is bliss; in-flight wifi is its antithesis, a curse.
I wish I had not turned it on. But on Singapore Airlines free connectivity is a business-class perk and for those not used to the pointy end of the plane, it’s hard to resist.
So, flying somewhere over Siberia, I got the news via a tweet: “No quarantine AT ALL for fully vaccinated passengers travelling to Sydney from Nov 1.”
The sting was in those last three words. After transferring through Singapore, the flight my daughter and I were on would land on 15 October.
Think hotel quarantine is over? Not for those of us already on our way back to Australia when Dominic Perrottet made the surprise announcement.
My 10-year-old daughter and I had an hour in Singapore. Could we stopover for longer? About two weeks longer? An immigration official said no – Singapore still bars most foreigners from doing anything more than change planes.
We had no option but to step on to SQ211 along with 18 others who, by then, all knew our fate. We would be among the last vaccinated international arrivals into Sydney held in hotel quarantine: two weeks detained by the slow-moving wheels of bureaucracy.
Had we known the change in policy even 10 hours before we did, we would never have boarded our first flight in London. Not least because of the money we’d have saved. The cap on international arrivals into Sydney – 750 people a week, spread over about 60 flights – has meant many passenger planes fly cargo-only, passenger-free. Even the busiest have only about 20 customers on board. Ours was one of those, with almost everyone in business class because those were the only seats on offer. Through September and into October, even expensive tickets ($AU9,000 one-way from London) were like gold-dust.
On 15 October, our golden ticket quite suddenly lost its shine.
At Sydney airport we were taken down narrow corridors for our first health screen by nurses head-to-toe in plastic. “How are you feeling?” Fine. “Any Covid symptoms?” No.
I’m double-vaccinated. Both my daughter and I had negative PCR tests the day before we flew out of London. We are less likely to be harbouring Covid than the average person walking along a Sydney street. In the 24 hours to 8pm Saturday, there were 301 new locally acquired cases in NSW. There wasn’t one detected in anyone who’d flown in from abroad.
Yet, as far as the machinery of quarantine is concerned, nothing has changed. Overseas arrivals are still considered a threat.
At Sydney airport, soldiers directed us to buses. The driver wouldn’t say where we were headed. At the first drop off point at the Marriott, I came to the door of the bus to ask a question of a police officer on the pavement outside. I didn’t get the chance: “Sit back down!” she shouted at me. “You risk infecting us. Do not leave your seat!”
The bus trundled on, past drunken Friday night crowds of people celebrating their first post-lockdown freedom weekend. At the Adina hotel, three families were taken off and walked to their rooms by soldiers. “Expect to be doing this for much longer?” I asked one. “No” he replied. “You’ll be among the last.”
Why would anyone follow in our footsteps if you can just wait another couple of weeks and go straight home, or maybe even head to the beach or a cafe first? The incoming cap lifts on 1 November too, meaning economy travel is an option. Flights are now on sale for under $1,500.
Ours, I know, is a problem of the privileged. We’re lucky to have been able to afford – just – expensive air fares and relatively comfortable confinement. And those flying into other Australian states will likely still need to quarantine in hotels for some time until arrangements for home quarantine are finalised.
But, in the circumstances, where is the sense in NSW’s arbitrary two-week delay to the end of quarantine? Why not end it now?
NSW deputy Liberal leader Stuart Ayres says the lead time is to “allow airlines and the commonwealth to start to put on extra flights and put … processes in place for people who are fully vaccinated”. Time is needed to prepare for the coming influx once the arrival cap is lifted. But that shouldn’t stop the other part of the equation – the end of quarantine – happening sooner.
Every day a nurse calls to check our ‘symptoms’. Rachel called on Saturday. She arrived in Sydney, from Ireland in June and quarantined herself, “so I know what you’re going through”. But, she added, knowing quarantine requirements are about to end “must feel like a real kick in the teeth”. For Rachel, Perrottet’s announcement has created some uncertainty. “Our company’s contract is supposed to run until February” she said. Could the change in policy mean that comes sooner?
For the next 11 days, though, nothing changes. The contractors will keep their business, delivering paper-bagged meals, guarding corridors and testing for Covid. My $3,500 charge will be one of the last contributions by a vaccinated passenger towards the multimillion dollar quarantine industry that popped up in early 2020 and will soon, in NSW, close down almost as fast.
But not, for those of us at its tail end, quite fast enough.
Dominic Perrottet talked on Sunday about “fixing anomalies”. Here’s hoping.