When Biju Mathew heard that India was going onto the UK’s travel red list, he leapt into action.
“I couldn’t afford to stay away,” he says. “I had to get back to work.”
The social services manager from Walsall, UK, who was in India visiting family, began ringing local travel agents in attempt to beat the Friday deadline.
From Friday 04:00 BST, most travellers who have been to India in the last 10 days will be refused entry to the UK unless they hold UK passports or residence rights. Those that do will be required to quarantine in hotels on arrival, at significant cost and inconvenience.
“Eventually, yesterday, a friend in the UK managed to book me a ticket from Mumbai to Manchester,” says Biju. He had just half an hour’s notice to pack and go.
“I had to stop everything. I didn’t get time to say a proper goodbye to my parents.”
It also cost him close to £2,000 for the flight and Covid tests required, when a flight from Mumbai is usually well under £1,000.
He is one of the lucky ones. His flight touched down in Manchester at around 15:00 BST on Thursday to his great relief.
Kiran and Saumiya Philip travelled to Kerala in March to get married, but once the wedding was over they realised India’s Covid cases were rising rapidly and they started looking for earlier flights back.
“I’ve been trying to get back to the UK since 12 April but there aren’t any tickets available,” says Kiran. “You get the odd one now and then, but the cost is upwards of £1,200 to travel from Kochi one way.”
The new restrictions are in response to the rapid spread of a new strain of coronavirus in India, which is overwhelming the country’s medical services.
Kiran hopes because he’s had the Pfizer vaccine as well as a bout of Covid, and plans to stick to all the testing and quarantine rules, he won’t pose much of a threat when he does return.
The couple have flights booked for 14 May but in the meantime it’s nothing like an extended honeymoon. He’s working remotely, and there’s a curfew at 19:00 local time. They’re just waiting and worrying.
“I would like to get home ASAP just in case India goes into lockdown and all flights to the UK get cancelled. This has happened before,” says Kiran.
They need to be back in the UK by early June at the latest to renew Saumiya’s visa. And they’ll have to dip into their savings, supposed to be for buying a house, to pay the £5,000 cost of the flights and quarantine hotels.
“All my family and friends are saying ‘try to get back as soon as you can’,” says Kiran.
Like Kiran and Saumiya, Pritha Kejriwal and her son Tanish need to get back to the UK before the summer to renew their visas. They’re both students and have been in Kolkata since November.
Pritha has been checking to make sure they will still be allowed to return and believes there is an exception for students studying in the UK, who should still be allowed to return despite the ban on most non-UK residents.
“My family were worried and wanted us to come back,” she says. “We were just waiting for the right time.
“We were looking at flights before 23 April. There were only one or two options, which were extraordinarily expensive.
“My son has exams starting 6 May. He was planning to get back in time for group work. If he doesn’t get back, I’m sure he could work online, but it’s demoralising and he’s uncertain.”
The uncertainty is also what is bothering Vick Busa.
He, his wife, and young daughter went to India in January when his father-in-law fell seriously ill with Covid. They managed to see him before he passed away and stayed to sort out his affairs.
Vick, an accountant, and his wife, who works in real estate, have been able to work remotely, although with a four-and-half-hour time difference it isn’t ideal. Now, though, they want to get back home to Essex.
They’re UK citizens so they will be allowed back into the country, but Vick is concerned it could be months before India is taken off the red list, meaning the inconvenience and expense of hotel quarantine are unavoidable.
He did try amongst the “panic” to book flights before the deadline but has settled for travelling on 4 May.
In the meantime, they are taking their responsibility to not bring back the Indian strain of the virus very seriously. They only go out when it is essential. And they’ll be particularly careful at the airport, he says.
There’s also the worry that their flight could be cancelled or delayed. He’s holding off booking the quarantine hotel for now.
“It’s a double risk,” he says. “If I book the quarantine hotel and my flight is cancelled, changing it will incur extra costs.
“I may incur a penalty, if I fly without it.” Even without the extra charges the cost of quarantine is unreasonably high, he argues, at £2,400 for the family.
All of this means “there’s a lot of ambiguity” to deal with still. He says he won’t feel sure that they’re really on their way until they finally board the flight at Delhi airport.
“We cant be like this for too long,” he says.