Feb 22nd

A fairly normal day in the flat, until around 1pm. James had gone to leave the community and whilst he was out I checked my emails. I discovered that Lufthansa had announced that they will not be flying passengers to or from China until March 30th at the earliest. This information came to me after receiving a reply to an email sent earlier in the week regarding the process of re-booking onto a new flight. The 30th of March. Over a whole month away with the “at the earliest” that had begun to accompany every date we saw. Even if I could stick it out for another month, the likelihood of being able to leave at the end of March was questionable, after all, I’d be able to leave at the end of February.

James returned from the shop empty handed. I firstly assumed they had sold out of food, but it turns out that he was refused entry to the shop due to an absence of a health form, something that we had no knowledge of. The form could be filled out online, but of course it was in Chinese which isn’t a huge issue, however the compulsory need for a Chinese ID Number is. After a few attempts and some help from some Chinese friends, the form was complete, certainly a relief especially if the online delivery services we had been relying on were to cease. However, it was useless to us right now as James couldn’t leave the community again for another two days. An online order it was.

Once this was sorted, I shared the news I had received about the flights. I rang the Lufthansa customer support centre in Beijing to try and understand what my options were, I was definitely expecting to get nowhere, but it was worth trying to at least get some sort of clarity. After trying a few calls, the first few unsuccessful, I got through and explained the situation.

I was firstly advised that the airline had agreed with Air China to fly passengers wishing to return to European destinations with existing bookings on the 9th March from Beijing. Coincidentally, I had read just before the call that Beijing have updated their travel restrictions too; anyone entering the city will be quarantined upon arrival for 14 days. Flying from Beijing was now not an option as the chances I’d get stuck there, even if I flew there from Hefei, are high. After some back and forth with the operator, and explaining the issue with Beijing, they looked for other options to fly back and I was put on hold for 25 minutes. At this point, it really seemed as if there would be no positive outcome and I’d just have to wait it out.

I was wrong. When the call re-connected, the operator told me that he had found a flight leaving Shanghai to Frankfurt on the 25th of February, in three days time. Whilst the operator discussed this further with Air China and arranged a connecting flight to London, James and I tried to find a way for me to get to Shanghai.

Internal flights from Hefei’s airport have begun to depart again over the last week, a great relief as the trains are still largely cancelled. Conveniently, there was a flight at 07:20 from Hefei to Shanghai on the 25th which arrived two hours before my flight to Frankfurt. Everything seemed to be going smoothly, which was suspicious. None the less, when the call re-connected for a second time, I had been booked onto the flight from Shanghai to London via Frankfurt. We quickly booked the other flight from Hefei to Shanghai and that was it, job done.

After a long two hour wait for the confirmation email to come through, I had my flight information and it was confirmed. From a phone call that seemed so hopeless after the many attempts I’d had before, I had a route back to the UK from Hefei. I am coming home.

Feb 25th

Hefei – Newark. What could possibly go wrong?

04.00

I woke up after a few hours of sleep ready to depart the community for the first time in three weeks. There was a real sense of anxiousness about the day ahead. So many potential issues could arise, there’s a lot going through my mind and also an overall sense of sadness. This may sound extremely strange since I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to leave, but I was leaving my best mate after five weeks on an absolute roller coaster. I know it’s going to be a while until I see him again, and leaving him on the other side of the World in the middle of all of this was certainly a strange feeling.

A few of the realistic issues I could face on the way home include being taken into quarantine at any given point, being denied access to airport buildings due to high temperature or freak readings and being unable to travel due to lack of unforeseen documentation. Never the less, I was going to depart Hefei, and had the help of a Chinese friend to get me to the Airport and though to check in.

06.15

Upon arrival at Hefei Airport, there were very few people around and the flight to Shanghai seemed to be the only flight leaving for the morning. I was glad to have our Chinese friend with us, there was a health form to fill out with no option for English and, like previous forms, would not work without a Chinese phone number. After using James’ number and a bit of guesswork I had the form complete and I could check in. I said my goodbyes and headed through security and the temperature screening.

07.20 Flight Hefei – Shanghai

Temperatures were taken again before boarding and the health forms were checked via their QR code. The plane was barely half full, plenty of room which made me feel quite relaxed, at least I had some space. Before take off, we had to complete another health form to show on our arrival to Shanghai. The air steward walked around with a QR code to scan and there was a lot of commotion as the other passengers tried to get it filled in and working. I’d had some experience of how to use the QR code system in China, but I was slightly worried that I wasn’t going to be able to complete it. As it turns out, the QR code was the same as the one I’d filled out at check in, so I already had the correct form, a relief.

08.45

The flight landed in Shanghai and we were guided through a really long queuing system towards five people in full hazmat suits with disinfectant tanks on their backs, it looked like a budget film version of the lunar landings. At this point, it seemed every single one of the other passengers decided to stampede towards the one access gate where another hazmat man was waiting with a clipboard. I’ve never seen anything like it, there was so much pushing and shoving and so many people so close together waving their phone screens around. I did not want to be in the middle of that, especially with a certain viral disease knocking about. I saw a sign that said foreigners, and as the only foreigner on the flight went under the barrier and formed my own orderly queue. They checked my health form, I’m not to sure that it made any sense to them but either way I was through. After claiming my bag I headed to the international terminal where, when I looked up at the departures board, every single flight had cancelled next to it – except one. Frankfurt.

10.00

Before being able to check in to the flight, there was another health form to fill out via QR code, thankfully this one had English options and was a breeze. I was checked in all the way through to London and had time to explore the second busiest airport in China, which didn’t take long since it was almost entirely closed and deserted of people.

11.30 Flight Shanghai – Frankfurt

The flight took off and left for Frankfurt, once we’d all been temperature checked anyway. Again, there were a lot of empty seats which meant I had the seat next to me free. I had been wearing my mask all day and one thing I hadn’t mastered yet was how to avoid my glasses steaming up every time I took a breath. It clearly meant air was escaping the wrong way, but there seemed to be no way to prevent it, proof that the masks are only so effective. Some had come dressed in full hazmat suits, some had come in pyjamas, but everyone was wearing masks including all of the crew.

About an hour into the flight each passenger had to fill out a declaration form for the German Health Authorities for them to be given upon arrival. These forms seemed sensible, asking for contact details, places you were staying and any onward travel plans. That way, if anyone on the flight sat near you was found to have the virus they could let you know. I still had no idea if I would be placed into quarantine in Germany when I landed, but at least I was out of China and on my way back to more familiar territory.

During the flight, our temperatures were taken three more times at steady intervals and there were frequent announcements made along the lines of “If you begin to feel ill, please inform crew immediately to help prevent the spread of Coronavirus”.

00.15 (16.15 UK Time)

Twenty hours after waking up to leave for the airport, I had landed in Frankfurt. To my surprise, I just walked straight off the plane into the departure lounge for my next flight. No checks, no temperature scans and stranger still, no one was wearing masks. This was the first time I’d seen peoples full faces, other than Steve and James’, for over three weeks. I had four hours until my flight to London, so I sat down and enjoyed a pint.

04.30 (20.30 UK Time)

Boarding was beginning on the final part of my journey, I couldn’t help to notice that I was the only passenger with an Air China boarding pass. I decided to keep this discreet to avoid any unwanted attention, the posts I’d read online still in the back of my mind. I made my way onto the plane, where again I had an empty seat next to me.

06.15 (22.15 UK Time)

I arrived in London, where I was fully prepared to be met with tests and/or quarantine at the UK Border. I had flown in from China, so naturally was expecting at least some questions about where I’d been in China and possibly to be screened for the Virus. However, this was not the case. I walked through the border with ease, no questions asked and was back in the UK free to do as I please.

I am now on my way back to my home in Newark. I can’t help thinking that after all the precaution taken in China, the fact that I could just walk out of London Heathrow Airport with no questions asked, no checks made and no advice given to me seemed extremely strange and it is worrying for the containing of the virus. I am now going to enter two weeks self isolation as a precaution to do my bit to help prevent the spread of Coronavirus.

09.30 (01.30 UK Time)

After a 30 hour Tuesday, I am home.