London’s Heathrow Airport on Wednesday morning was less crowded than usual with the country in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic. But those who were there seemed like they were part of a mass migration.
Each person had two or three pieces of heavy luggage in tow, while some others were frantically repacking items, their bags thrown open on the floor.
“Everyone is carrying so much stuff it’s like they are moving houses,” a Qatar Airways counter staff member said. Apologising for the wait, she said people were probably planning to leave Britain for an extended period until the health crisis waned.
Joseph Yung, 24, a Hongkonger who is a master’s student at the University of London, said: “It is as if we are running from a war.”
“I originally planned to stay until June, but now I feel it is safer to go back,” he continued. “I fear there may be a massive epidemic in Britain soon and people here may not know how to handle it.
“The awareness for protection is rather weak … They have not experienced Sars and their response has been very slow.”
Yung was referring to the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in Hong Kong in 2003, which claimed 299 lives.
At Heathrow, not only were queues long, but traffic to the airport was congested.
This came on the back of some closures of metro stations as British transport authorities announced a series of measures on late Wednesday evening, part of a wider effort to slow the spread of Covid-19.
Stuck in an airline bus in a sea of cars for some 45 minutes, I was already too late to check-in for my flight by the time I arrived at the airport.
Several passengers faced the same situation, and Qatar Airways could not arrange other seats for us until some days later, since there were too many students returning to Hong Kong.
Both the Cathay Pacific and British Airways websites showed that all flights were full.
In an unexpected stroke of luck, I chanced upon a ticket with British Airways through an online booking agent on the same night.
I hesitated at first, but as my finger wavered over my smartphone, the price shot up by about £200. In the end I settled for £1,723 (HK$15,888) for a one-way ticket on flight BA027 to Hong Kong.
When I boarded the plane, I was greeted by the sight of many wiping down their seats with wet tissues.
The cabin was eerily quiet, with anxiety thick in the air, as passengers spoke in hushed tones to each other or mostly kept silent behind their face masks.
Not a single person went barefaced, except for cabin crew members.
Some more well-equipped passengers wore goggles and gloves, or even raincoats. A few had protective coats, mummifying themselves from head to toe.
“It is rather stuffy,” said Theo Cheung, 17, a boarding school student who wore an organic gas mask provided to him from a worried aunt. He also had on goggles and a hat.
Throughout the 13-hour flight, the toilets were rarely utilised. Passengers around me said they would avoid any movement in the plane.
At least half of the passengers refused to be served any drinks or food, fearing infection.
Others who were drinking shared some tips with me: only consume packaged drinks from bottles, cans and boxes.
Cheung said he did not feel safe drinking from plastic cups as they were handled by cabin crew, and none were wearing masks.
“I wasn’t planning on eating anything too since I don’t know how the food was handled. But I am too hungry now, so forget it,” he said with a defeated smile.
BA027 touched down in Hong Kong at 5pm local time on Thursday. As the plane approached the airport, the captain announced that all travellers entering the city would have to undergo the mandatory 14-day quarantine.
We were reminded to fill out three forms – a health declaration sheet and two compulsory quarantine papers.
As my weary feet touched home soil on Thursday, the news was that Hong Kong had recorded 16 new infections, bringing the local tally to 208, with four fatalities.
My airport was in chaos.
There were medical staff on site to direct crowds to different areas, with disoriented travellers asking workers where they should go, what forms to fill, and how long the process would take.
Those with no symptoms were reminded to retain all three forms with them and go to the lines under a “Green Channel” section to be issued an electronic monitoring wristband.
A staff member would then collect the health declaration form.
We were later ushered to a normal e-channel area, but all automatic barriers were not in operation. Immigration officers collected our ID cards and the remaining two arrival forms, returning one after stamping it.
The whole procedure took about 30 minutes more than the usual immigration process in less frenzied times.
We were then free to collect our luggage after being given a set of “Home of Quarantine Guidelines for Home Confinee”. There was also a letter asking users to download a “Stay Home Safe” phone app, which could “analyse the environmental electronic signals and their respective strengths” for monitoring purposes.
Cherry Chu, 20 a fellow Hongkonger back on home ground, said while there was confusion at the airport, she understood the requirements by reading the leaflets issued.
“I guess these are just difficult times and we have to pull together,” she said. “Staying home for 14 days is really not that bad, as long as we don’t have to go to a camp.”