25 March 2020

Dispatches from the Pandemic: London to Seoul

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a catastrophic impact on international travel. The ability to travel freely has been radically diminished, and those that are able find a radically different experience than the world was accustomed to before the outbreak. We spoke with an individual who travelled from London, United Kingdom, to Seoul, South Korea, on 24 March to find out what international travel is like in the age of coronavirus.

Riskline: What extraordinary measures by Heathrow Airport, the airlines, passengers, etc. did you observe?

Traveller: There were no special measures in place at Heathrow except that security and airline staff kept a little bit more distance as per the rules and recommendations. The airline staff on the plane was wearing plastic gloves. All passengers wore face masks. Many Koreans, in particular younger ones, were much more seriously equipped with Uvex protective goggles and full body hazmat suits. There was no cooked food prepared on the airplane. We got individually wrapped and packaged food instead.

What precautions did you take?

I wore a face mask and washed or sanitised my hands regularly. I also tried to stay 1-2 metres away from people (something that some people at the airport and in the queues cared surprisingly little about).

How comfortable/safe/secure did you feel while travelling? In hindsight, were you prepared for the endeavour?

It felt secure enough. It's obviously nice to be surrounded by passengers who take it overly seriously. So in that sense I think it helped that I was on a plane with 95-99 percent Koreans who all took a lot of precautions. But I was also lucky because the seat next to me was empty. I don't know how I would have felt if I had been sitting directly next to a coughing neighbour wearing no mask or anything.

What procedures did you go through upon landing in Seoul? Do you need to do anything after leaving the airport? (check-in with authorities, temperature tests, self-isolation, etc)

The first step is filling out a few forms that got handed out on the plane. One was on health, one on the travel record and personal information (plus the usual arrival card and customs declaration). Upon arrival at the airport there was first the temperature test and we had to download an app (which I had already downloaded in the UK). I also got a badge I had to wear around the neck. After that foreigners were separated from Koreans just before immigration and a man asked for my phone and input a few things into this app, asking me again about any possible symptoms. Then at a desk there were some further checks and they called the person I'm staying with in Korea. After immigration, baggage claim and customs I was told to go to an entrance gate of the terminal building where police and army personnel were waiting. Together with a few other foreigners we had to wait about 45 minutes for a bus to come, waited for another 45 minutes or so on the bus and were then driven for two hours to the place where we would get tested, which is a waterpark/resort where the hotel is being used as a temporary quarantine hotel. I was tested roughly 5-6 hours after landing in Korea and now have to wait until midnight for the results. It's possible I'll be free to leave right away but more likely that I'll have to spend the night because of how far away we are from Seoul.

What was the difference in atmosphere between London - on the first day of lockdown - and Seoul?

London seemed quite busy in the early hours of the first day of the lockdown. I think the rules of who can go to work and who can't and the enforcement procedures were so vague and unclear that I assume in the first days more people will still be out than necessary. In London in the past days though people have become more serious about the situation, with distancing rules being more strictly observed and a lot fewer people in the streets. I haven't been to Seoul yet, but in the parts of Korea I've seen so far all seem serious about the efforts to fight the coronavirus.

What would you advise other people considering or attempting international travel at this time?

It's on the one hand relaxing because everything is so empty. The taxi driver in London joked that never in my life would I get to Heathrow so quickly again and he was probably right. Heathrow was also quite empty, so was Incheon. On the other hand airplanes are still places where you are in close contact with other people so health-wise it's probably best to avoid this at the moment. Also the rules and procedures one is subjected to anywhere these days change quickly, so that the days before the departure are much more stressful than usual.