Omicron Variant: My husband and I am among the hundreds, if not thousands, of UK citizens who are currently stuck in South Africa.
We arrived in to Cape Town on Tuesday, the day the new Omicron variant first became news, and by Thursday night we were stranded – every flight that could have got us home before the red list hotel quarantine deadline, cancelled.
On Saturday night, my husband was attacked in the street and stabbed three times and is – medics say – lucky to be alive.
We now face ten days in a hotel quarantine, despite the fact he is badly injured and likely psychologically scarred, when we eventually get our rescue flight back on Friday.
Like many of the 200,000 South Africans living in the UK, Steve – my husband – was excited to finally be flying home after a long 18-month travel ban. When our mandatory PCR tests came back negative on Sunday night, we were thrilled.
After a whirlwind of packing and rushing to the airport, we sat on the Monday overnight flight ready to get a bit of sun and catch up with friends and family before the baby comes.
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Tuesday and Wednesday passed with no news, days spent at the beach where Steve’s father and his wife lives.
But Thursday, an unease began to spread like mould. A new variant had been found in South Africa. It was spreading quickly and was, potentially, more dangerous.
I wasn’t worried, telling my sister-in-law: “Our government has always been so slow to react they won’t shut down travel, it will be weeks before they do that.” How wrong I was.
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Our uneasiness was matched by my sister-in-law, Laura, and her husband Michael – both of whom work in the film industry – who slowly throughout the day began getting more and more messages of concern from colleagues.
Tourism and Film are among the city’s largest industries – both rely on international travellers, and in particular those from Europe. After a hideously quiet 18 months, most workers were looking forward to a busy season now the world was largely travel restriction free – one that seemed in grave danger of slipping away.
After a family dinner, we learnt we were stuck via Sajid Javid’s Tweet. No correspondence from an airline, the government or an embassy followed. Just one social media post to break the bad news – flights to South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe had all been suspended to and from the UK. Panic set in.
We spent all night trying to book ourselves a flight out of Cape Town before an alleged Sunday 4am deadline.
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We didn’t know if spending the best part of £5,000 on economy flights to Paris was going to actually get us home in time to avoid the financially crippling quarantine hotel.
By Friday morning, most of the film and television industry workers I know had lost six months of upcoming work. Most are self employed.
That’s rent, food and petrol money, school fees, everything up in a puff of smoke. As many Brits will testify, there’s little to no support for the self employed from the State. Same applies here.
Some of the city’s best loved hotels, I was told, had finishing hiring and training their first full team of staff members in nearly two years on Monday, only to send them all home again three days later as cancellations poured in. Restaurants and taxi drivers across the city welcomed guests with open arms, begging them to come back, to stay.
At this point, there had been 59 cases of the new variant detected worldwide, most in South Africa. Nationwide, there had been 1,200 new Covid cases – a steep increase in just a handful of days. This compared to over 46,000 new cases in the UK at the end of last week.
It felt bitterly unfair. Southern Africa was, locals felt, being punished for its transparency.
Despite hysteria, hours on the phone, endless emails – we heard nothing from the government or British Airways, who we had booked our original flight home with. Emergency phone numbers rang out, emails and social media messages left unread or ignored.
British Airways, I would imagine, were trying to do right by their stranded customers in a difficult – and totally unpredicted – situation that was sprung upon the company with no warning. But a lack of contact from any party involved in getting us home in those early stages only added to the feeling of abandonment and hopelessness.
Friday night was when our £5,000 emergency Air France flights were due to depart at 12.30am – getting us to London a few hours before the deadline. During the day, we spent hundreds of pounds getting rapid PCR tests, documents printed, Day 2 and Day 8 tests ordered for when we landed.
Throughout the day, phone notifications toyed with our nerves – Urseula Von Der Leyen reccomending the EU close its borders, more cases popping up all over the continent. But our flight was still scheduled. We were going home.
Like a scene from a film, we set off from town to the airport in one of the worst lightning and thunder storms the city had seen in decades. Streams of water poured from the skies, which were lit up with violent flashes of light and guteral clashes of thunder. It was an omen.
As we pulled up to the airport drop off, the doors were closed and blocked by security guards in high-viz jackets. Hundreds of masked passengers grasping wheely cases pushed together to hear what a lady with a clip board had to say: “All flights cancelled, you have to leave. The airport is closed.”
Two American tourists stood sobbing, scrolling on their phones in the hope of finding new flights, desperate for a way to get home. Nowhere to stay, no ride to somewhere safe. Left standing in the rain with no help or assistance.
We drove back to town in shocked silence, admitting defeat. There was nothing else we could do until morning.
It took until Saturday at 5pm for BA to contact us, offering us rescue flights. 20 hours is a long time when you are 8,000 miles from home with a baby growing inside you.
The only support we got from the government was a text telling us a PCR test would be delivered to our house in the UK – even though we were stuck on the otherside of the world.
As more information began to trickle through, and we accepted we’d have to fork out over £3,000 to stay in a Heathrow Airport for at least ten days, we accepted an extension to the holiday.
I would be home not too far in to my 32nd week of pregnancy (you can fly until 36 weeks if carrying one baby, but good luck getting insurance past 32 weeks.) We’d be careful but enjoy ourselves. My husband drank glasses of delicious, cheap wine while I looked on enviously. We’d get home eventually.
On Saturday night, I was awoken by something – someone – howling outside my bedroom window. I’d gone home a few hours before, while Steve enjoyed beers with friends. I opened the door to him covered in blood. Blood pouring from his left hand, little finger severed. Blood pouring from his right elbow. Blood easing across his chest.
“Don’t be cross,” he said.
He’s been stabbed three times with a broken beer bottle by a group of five, maybe six men on the street. Medics removed a three inch piece of glass from his hand and repaired a severed nerve. His wounds on his chest and arm would have killed him, had they been in fractionally different locations.
Of course, street violence can occur anywhere. He was out late and in the wrong place at the wrong time. But now we find ourselves in one hell of a situation.
We are now reliant on the British government to give us a medical exemption to hotel quarantine, seeing as Steve has quite literally been sewn back together again. He will need constant medical attention when we land home.
Furthermore, my body has processed so much adreneline and stress in the past 48 hours I probably need a check up as well. Half my family are expecting the baby to be born with grey hair, the other say it will be an adreneline junkie from the moment it opens its lungs.
So, we have five days until we fly home to reason with the unreasonable – the British government – and to quarantine in our house so Steve can recover. Wish us luck.