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Welcome to the hotel Covid quarantine, where you can't...

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Opinionista

Welcome to the hotel Covid quarantine, where you can’t wait to check out

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David Shlugman was born in South Africa and matriculated at Grey High School, Port Elizabeth. He qualified as a doctor at UCT and specialised in anaesthetics. He has lived in the UK for 27 years and has recently retired as an NHS consultant in Oxford. He is a Maverick Insider.

South African-born David Shlugman and his wife Alison were forced into super-costly four-star hotel quarantine after landing at Heathrow Airport recently during the UK’s red listing of South Africa. They emerged from quarantine three days before the ban was lifted this week. This is their experience.

Day 10 quarantine – hard to believe it’s upon us and “freedom” beckons. The rule requires one to spend 10 days and 11 nights in quarantine, with the day of arrival counting as Day Zero. We could leave one minute past midnight but deferred it to the next day. Our all-important Days 2 and 8 PCR tests were negative, meaning there was no impediment to our checking out. I was very tempted to send a “unique” Day 8 specimen but feared there may be a new variant of Covid lurking in places “the sun don’t shine”… called the Rad Dark Blu Covid variant. 

There is an element of seriousness in this as over time, one starts to buck authority. From the moment we booked our return flights to the UK, we had been at the whim of persons’ in authority. We have been bombarded with diktats, orders, instructions, phone calls, threats of fines and imprisonment, forms to fill out, do this, don’t do that, you can’t go there, it’s not allowed, have you got this etc. 

We’ve lived in the UK for 27 years and are not used to all this totalitarianism. 

Looking back, it wasn’t so bad. My wife Alison disagrees. It’s amazing how the human psyche adjusts to situations. Think of those during the Blitz. Eventually it becomes a way of life, and life resumes. Having spent a month in Cape Town on holiday, we initially couldn’t contemplate the thought of being cooped up in a hotel room for 10 days and considered sitting it out in Cape Town. But with time, and thinking of the consequences of being marooned in South Africa indefinitely and not being with family, one starts the acceptance process. And here we are.

What dominated our lives? It was meals, as opposed to food. Meals provided an anchor, a fixed point in a long day as they appeared with regularity, roughly the same time every day. With lunch and dinner, we would be asking each other where the food was and would frequently check the corridor as to the food dispenser’s presence. Breakfast was different in that there was no hurry to get out of bed but we made a point of being showered, dressed, bed made, room tidied before it arrived. The actual consumption took very little time. 

The quality of the food left much to be desired initially but improved with time. The real issue was that it was rarely hot, more often lukewarm. Once prepared in the hotel kitchen, it was pre-packed into small cardboard take-away containers, placed into big brown bags with the room number on it. By the time it reached the recipient, and given this was a 500 room hotel, it had cooled down significantly. There was absolutely no point in complaining and again, this is where the acceptance mechanism kicks in. Who are you going to complain to and more importantly, would anything come of it? You are literally a captive audience. You are where you are by government decree and … you’ve paid for the pleasure, all £3,715 (R79,200). 

So the food per se becomes relatively unimportant. Also, by virtue of one’s lack of energy expenditure, one’s appetite adjusted downwards resulting in huge wastage. This didn’t sit comfortably – having just come from SA – with British food banks nearby. 

The food, by and large, was tasty and the portions big, in fact too big. The choice tended to be limited to chicken in various formats and Indian dishes. We love Indian food, but not on an almost daily basis. When we first arrived at the hotel late in the evening, after a nearly 12-hour flight, long bus ride, innumerable waits and queues and form filling-in at Heathrow, we got to the hotel, weary, saddle-sore, bloated and running short on patience. Here there was even more form-filling of exactly the same information as previous, but to cap it all, we had to fill out our menu choices for the next 10 days. Now, how the (and I’m being polite) “dickens” do you know what you will want for lunch in six days’ time or dinner on day nine? The next problem was deciphering the  dishes on the menu. I can tell you what chicken korma or vindaloo or naan are but not dal panchratna or aloo gobi or paneer makhani are … especially after a long day crossing Continents. Many a time, we resorted to the children’s menu  and even for the ultimate carnivore, the vegan menu. 

The Berlin Wall 

The door to the room was the equivalent to the Berlin Wall, an impenetrable barrier to anyone but ourselves. The hotel staff were not allowed to cross the threshold under any circumstances. The food packets were left outside the door on the floor. When talking to you, the staff member stood up against the opposite door, masked and gloved, such is the high-flying, long distance jumping ability of the virus. Once the food packet was in your possession, unwanted items could not be returned as they were now instantly saturated with virus, hence the large wastage. To be fair, one got the impression the staff had been beaten into submission by rules and regulations from upon high and any transgressions would have resulted in instant deportation to the gulag. 

One had access to supplies from supermarkets and take-away food from the likes of Deliveroo, but the food always arrived cool. We had burgers and hotdogs on two occasions from the wonderfully named “Smoky Boys” outlet. Some days the thought of yet another curry, lemon-roasted chicken or grilled fish, was not to be even entertained.

Our room was of reasonable size and cleanliness but “tired”, in need of a make-over since it was last refurbished in 1989. It was obviously the interior decorators “Brown Period” as the room had dark brown polka dot curtains, plain brown carpet, muddy-coloured painted walls, and just two black and white framed pictures of ballet dancers on the wall. There were outdated, no longer in-use audio jacks on the wall with “MV Video” and “MV Music” written on the antique brass wall plates, as well as old-style sockets for dial-up internet access. The room furniture was glossy melamine, art deco style. The duvet cover was too big for the duvet leaving lots of excess cover drooping over the sides of the bed, much to the chagrin of my nurse wife who trained at Addenbrookes Hospital in the “old days” and was taught “hospital corners” by Hattie Jacques types. There was a single comfortable chair and foot-stool covered in a fluffy grizzly bear-coloured browny material which had last been cleaned who knows when. Where was Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen (the popular interior designer) in 1989? The view from our first-floor window was stunning. No, not golden beach sand or breaking waves or palm trees or cavorting dolphins but a car park, office blocks, McDonalds, and people walking freely. Heathrow was a mile or two away so we could hear the roar of jets taking off in the distance. Thank goodness a no-fly policy existed from 10.50pm to 6am.

Inmates exercise area 

Exercise consisted of two walks daily in the hotel car park, one after breakfast, the other after lunch. To walk, one had to phone security, who were always obliging and friendly, and ended the conversation with “no probs”, or “no problem”, or “no worries”. Such is the fascination with minutiae when one has time on one’s hands that at the end of the phone call, I’d tell my wife which of the three were manning the desks… “no probs, no problem or no worries”. Security would collect you from your room and escort you to the exercise yard. Situated at the lift area on every floor, was a desk with a handful of guards in Hi-Viz jackets, who would take your name and room number. You were only allowed to use the lifts and not the stairs. (stairs were regarded as a high-risk slip area. I did ask the security guard if I should use the lift in an event of a fire and was told, straight-faced, to use the stairs. Irony not his strong point). Prior to exiting the hotel for the exercise yard, you once again were asked for name and room number.

The exercise area, the hotel car park, was of reasonable size, about 70x70m. At every corner, there were the “screws” in Hi-Viz jackets and much time was spent plotting an escape. There was talk of smuggling a file hidden in a cake, or ordering bolt cutters from Amazon, or placing a wooden horse in the centre of the area. The Shawshank Redemption escape modus operandi was mentioned on occasions. However, the £10,000 fine for making a break tended to concentrate the mind. The exercise area was popular with the inmates and after a while, one started to note patterns. Firstly, everyone walked in an anti-clockwise direction. Why? Very occasionally you’d see someone walking clockwise, much to the disapproving looks of the masses obeying the unwritten rule. Then there were those who only walked in particular directions. We had obligatory runners of all shapes and sizes and ages. There were the sportsmen type – lean, fit-looking, in T-shirts and shorts (in winter) with an amazing ability to have a normal conversation whilst running, the sign of a regular exerciser. The older runner wore tracky bottoms and tended to shuffle their way around, stopping frequently in contrast to the fit ones who continually lapped the walkers and shufflers. 

Smokers’ Corner

At the far end was Smokers Corner. They consumed their quota of fags in an hour for what should have been a daily quota. They were an especially jolly lot and seemed to bond with each other more so than the rest of us. The relief on their faces as they took the first drag was a joy to behold, even for a non-smoker. By and large, everybody in the exercise yard seemed cheery, with much talking and laughter. After a few days, one got to recognise faces or strides or running style or pattern of walking or outfits. Associations formed easily as one walked the perimeter, without the need for introductions. As always there were the “earnest” ones, usually single, not saying much, head down, determined walking. 

Sticking to a routine 

We kept ourselves occupied by sticking to a routine and not dwelling on our situation. Every morning, there was the obligatory single vertical line drawn on the bathroom glass door with a felt-tipped pen followed by the horizontal on day 5. We bought children’s badminton racquets and shuttlecocks and used the bed as a court. We also had a golf putter and balls, balloons to play “keepy uppy balloony”, a favourite of our grandson. He stands no chance now. We played cards and Blokus, read, and spent a lot of time on our phones video-calling friends. The latter activity was especially pleasing for us but not our friends as we had all the time in the world. We spoke to friends we hadn’t been in contact with for ages. 

The Common Enemy – the system

Many have asked how one survives 10 days of enforced lock-up with one’s partner, given one’s probably never done it in the past, even on honeymoon. Speaking for ourselves, we found it easy and a non-issue. It boils down to the inevitability of one’s situation and the need to make it work. And work it did because daily life-demands are diminished and one quickly winds down into a “hibernation” sort of state. The common enemy, The System, is always there and a good target for venting one’s frustrations on.

Invaluable help was taking advice from the web from those who’d been in a similar situation. They advised a washing line with pegs for the “smalls” (hotel will only wash seven items at the end of week one), an HDMI cable to connect the laptop to the room TV, crockery and cutlery so as not to have to eat out of (leaking) cardboard boxes with wooden cutlery, plastic wash-up basin and dishwashing liquid, alcoholic drinks to avoid using the expensive hotel room service, snacks and sweets.

To end off. We’ve done it. It wasn’t that bad but we were “lucky” with our 4-star hotel (Radisson Blu Edwardian, Heathrow) as some three-star hotels were flea pits. I think the most important thing is one’s attitude on entry. We didn’t come across a single person who was miserable or moping. We were all in the same boat. 

An expensive exercise 

This is an expensive exercise (£371.50/day per couple, for 10 days) and a deprivation of one’s liberty. Is it necessary given the fact it seems the Omicron variant is not a killer? I hear the arguments about the benefit of hindsight and the greater good etc but…

Postscript

Leaving the hotel via the route reserved for those who’d done their time felt good. We’d watched it on two previous occasions as we were the third “intake”. One felt sorry for those who’d just arrived and had a full stretch in front of them. Looking back at the hotel and finding one’s room and seeing it from the outside world was interesting and explained why we could hear the Heathrow aircraft but not see them. With time on one’s hands, these sorts of mind-boggling questions took centre stage. The trip home to Oxfordshire was a happy occasion for so many reasons not least of all we were returning without having flown 6,000 miles and felt fresh. Hot fried eggs with fresh hot toast, and a decent cup of coffee capped it all. DM

 

 

 

 

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