Herald sports journalist Liam Napier arrived back in New Zealand last week after two years in the United Kingdom. Here are his experiences from the hurried flight back - and what quarantine is like.
Full protective jumpsuits. Eerie airports. Stranded Kiwis. Quarantine.
Travelling never felt so surreal.
As with all corners of the globe, flight options from the United Kingdom to New Zealand rapidly began to cease last month. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in a belated effort to amend his botched Covid-19 response, finally broke from the herd immunity approach to impose comparatively light lockdown measures on March 23.
Comparing humans to cattle, and projecting the ideology that a certain percentage of the population would effectively be sacrificed, was never sound of mind. Watching New Zealand's informed, decisive leadership from the other side of the world, meanwhile, underlined the UK's false initial response - as did the mass gatherings across the UK prior to lockdown that will haunt British leaders.
These include the four-day Cheltenham races, where 251,684 punters flocked; the England and Wales rugby match attended by Johnson and 80,000 fans, the Bath half marathon, with 6200 runners taking part, and the Stereophonics playing sold out gigs in Cardiff, one day after Wales and Scotland had their Six Nations match in the same city postponed.
All defied belief.
As neighbouring Italy, Spain and France shutdown, England's pubs, parks and gyms remained full. Packed east London street markets flowed with shoulder-to-shoulder patrons – all of which jarred with accepted social distancing measures, allowing the virus to further infiltrate.
Johnson's failure to immediately act and accurately test – only the severely ill could get access – led to over four-hour ambulance wait times, and the need to build one makeshift hospital in a conference centre, complete with 4000 beds and open-aired morgues.
It's also why London's lockdown may last three months.
Three weeks into Britain's eventual lockdown, which shares many similarities with New Zealand's alert level 3, the NZ Embassy advised that mercy flights should not be relied upon to get home.
With my two-year youth mobility visa ending in August, booked holidays fast cancelling, dreams of travel elsewhere seemingly quashed for the remainder of the year and uncertainty of future income elevating daily anxiety, the time came to bite the bullet and sign-off the traditional overseas experience.
By April 13, flight demand dwindled to a trickle. Qatar and Malaysia are the only airlines operating to New Zealand – ours was the third-last scheduled route from London to Auckland.
Three days after booking tickets, New Zealand fully quarantines its border, altering plans to self-isolate at the idyllic Piha. Flying amid a global pandemic was never going to be normal - and arriving at Heathrow, this is immediately evident.
Travellers are decked out in full-body hazmat jumpsuits; goggles, face masks, gloves, in a scene that feels more akin to an operating room than London's busiest airport.
Heathrow is unnervingly deserted; terminal four near silent. Flight boards accustomed to flicking over at breakneck speed are instead stationary with four outward journeys. Shops, other than one pharmacy and WHSmith store, are closed. Hand sanitisers sit at every turn and skeleton airport staff, check in and security operators, wear masks and gloves at all times. Two-metre distancing at bag security is ensured by allowing travellers to use only the first and last tray stations.
Yet these measures are completely abandoned once aboard. On our first-leg Qatar flight to Doha, all travellers are funnelled into the last carriage which is virtually full with passengers sitting side-by-side.
Two men quarrel with flight attendants about the lack of spacing, to no avail. When seated, vexed stares meet any hint of sneezes or coughs. Once airborne and the seatbelt sign is switched off, passengers are permitted to move carriages and claim the many unused seats. Bizarre, to put it mildly, that this wasn't the case prior to takeoff.
In Doha, New Zealanders are easy to spot. One sports the classic All Blacks jersey – white collar, Steinlager logo. Others share tales of arduous journeys to reach this Middle East point.
Unable to fly from a small town near Lyon, France, a professional Hamilton rugby player explains he was first turned away at the Switzerland border attempting to start his trip home. At the next border crossing he manages to make his way to Geneva. There he catches a flight to Frankfurt, where he and two other Kiwis hunker down at an abandoned café as they pass 19 hours for their connecting flight to Doha.
Another couple, baby in tow, require the NZ Embassy's help after being stuck in Dubai for three weeks. They look exhausted yet relieved to be homeward bound.
Our second leg to Auckland transports around 50 New Zealanders on the 250 seat plane, allowing everyone to stretch out and gain some much-needed rest on the bumpy 16-hour journey home. Before landing at 3.30am on April 15, two hours before the government's repatriation flight from Peru, we receive the standard New Zealand arrival cards.
Once grounded, though, ground staff hurriedly replace those cards with ones that include crucial Covid-19 questions. These range from probes about countries visited to any contact with known infected persons and any apparent symptoms.
Through the arrival gates Ministry of Health (MOH) workers take everyone's temperature - I'm told normal readings range from 35 to 37.5 degrees.
Mine sits around 36. Phew.
Passengers' cards are marked A, B or C depending on their temperature. Mine is "B". Those who receive other letters undergo further testing behind screen doors.
Baggage collection and customs largely follows the usual script. We then file onto buses for transportation to one of 18 selected hotels, and prepare for two-week quarantine.
After hearing suggestions Ellerslie hotels allow those in quarantine to run around the race track, I'm hoping we end up there. Emulating horses has got to be better than solely stuck in a room, right?
The Pullman, however, is our destination. Our busload takes the hotel to capacity.
Later that week Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says 1189 people are in hotel quarantine. By Wednesday, April 22, that number rises to 2403.
Ministry of Health, nurses, army and police officials brief us on arrival. All wear protective masks and gloves. Plastic screens shield hotel workers issuing check in instructions, and lines are marked on the floor specifying two-metre distancing.
Information packs outlining why quarantine is necessary; how to wash your hands, access medical supplies and mental health professionals are provided. Three meals per day, selected from one of three options for each serving, are dropped at the door.
The government covers the bill for the room, wifi, food and laundry, which, in these fraught financial times, we must appreciate. Meals, for the record, are good quality, if not a tad on the small side. Lamb shank, mushroom gnocchi, macaroni cheese. Lunch and dinner comes with a side salad and dessert.
Guests arrived from the Pacific Islands, Australia, Peru - all over the globe. Former All Blacks wing Waisake Naholo quarantined here en route from London to Dunedin. Ben Smith and other All Blacks are in alternative venues after fleeing France.
At our hotel, guests are allowed out once per-day for roughly 45 minutes at the nearby Albert Park. This escape is a blessing.
I recall once previously spending any significant times at Albert Park, while attending the Lantern Festival. Now I could tell you near every path, incline, statue, sprawling Wind and the Willows-esque tree, groomed garden, sap-soaked leaf.
Walking to and from Albert Park is carried out under strict supervision. Time slots for groups of 10 guests fast fill up. Book your spot for the following day too late, and you risk missing release from captivity.
Smokers are allowed out to the hotel driveway to sooth their fix but, as with daily walks, room numbers must be given to the doorman. When exiting and entering the premises and lifts, hand sanitisers must be used. Army personnel patrol the hotel lobby and door, day and night.
As someone who thrives on regular, varied exercise, the outdoors, cooking and general freedoms, restrictions to this degree form daily struggles. Days of the week blur. Facial hair deteriorates. Four walls close in.
Like most, motivation is at a low-ebb. Living in your bedroom sure doesn't help. Longingly gazing out to a glimpse of the sun-drenched Waitemata Harbour, through the assorted apartments, becomes habitual to spot the odd ferry cruise by.
In the down moments, I rationalise others have it much worse; lockdowns are not too different elsewhere… aside from being confined to one room for two weeks. I also fully appreciate those attempting to educate and entertain kids at this time probably view my situation as a dreamy Island escape. I assure you, it is not.
Supermarket orders and specific company deliveries to the hotel are permitted. Personal packages sent directly by friends or family members, not so.
An update slides under the door noting the MOH has restricted alcohol orders, either directly from the hotel or supermarket, to either four beers or one bottle of wine per-person, per-day.
Someone, somewhere, has clearly been knocking them back.
At the midway point of our quarantine, nurses start arriving at the door to check temperatures on a daily basis. No abnormalities thus far, thankfully.
On day six, we hold exit interviews with MOH officials who log our next travel and accommodation plans in the national system. There are, of course, final medical checks to satisfy before anyone is allowed to leave the hotel for good.
This quarantine situation, as with every other in isolation, is far from ideal. As you may have gathered, madcap cabin fever has well and truly set in. But in these trying, unprecedented times, managing risk and prioritising health and safety is essential, and we must all play our role.
For now at least, quarantine, lockdowns, and social distancing is our new norm. Even in the face of such immense struggle and sacrifice, New Zealanders should be thankful.
Just ask Boris Johnson - it could be much, much worse.