My Madeiran quarantine nightmare: TPG reader mistake story

Nov 29, 2020

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We’ve been asking to hear your travel success and mistake stories to both celebrate and help our TPG U.K. community — even if you’re not travelling as much right now.

As we’re getting used to, travel looked very different in 2020. At times when travel is still permitted, we now have to take extra steps when planning a trip to make sure we’re following the rules and regulations for our own country, as well as the country we’re travelling to.

Related: How coronavirus could forever change the future of travel

One such change is having to provide a negative PCR test on arrival into some countries. While you can pay upwards of £150 for a private test in the U.K. before you leave, in some cases, certain countries will test you on arrival and save you the hassle and money of arranging it before you leave.

The latter option is what my friend and TPG U.K. reader Heidi opted for before a recent trip with the girls to Madeira — a decision she’d later come to regret. (The trip took place before England entered its second lockdown.) Here’s her story, with some edits for length and clarity:

“Being a keen traveller has meant multiple holidays cancelled this year due to the pandemic. That’s why I jumped at the opportunity for a four-day break in Madeira with a couple of friends last month in a desperate attempt to catch the last of the summer sun. However, what started off as sundowners by the pool turned into 21 days of hell, trapped in a hotel room due to COVID-19.

We chose Madeira as, aside from the winter sun, there have been few cases of COVID-19. At the time of travel, there were two options for COVID-19 testing in order to travel to Madeira: You either provide proof of a negative test result from the U.K. when you land or accept the offer of a free COVID-19 test on arrival at Madeira airport and isolate in your accommodation for 12 hours until you get the result.

This is where we went wrong.

Given the test in Madeira was free and we would just have to stay by the pool for the next 12 hours, this seemed the obvious choice rather than shelling out £120 in the U.K. for a test in advance. Plus, none of us had COVID-19, right? Well, wrong.

Two days, three COVID-19 tests and an antibody test later, I was told I tested positive for coronavirus and must isolate for 14 days. The first test had come back inconclusive, so two doctors dressed in PPE had turned up at our apartment after 24 hours to take a series of further tests.

I was then delivered the news the following day.

I was asymptomatic and had no idea I’d contracted the virus. The next thing I knew, I was sent a confinement warrant from the Madeiran authority (titled an ‘arrest warrant’), forced to leave my friends behind (they tested negative) as an ambulance had arrived to transport me to the designated ‘COVID Hotel’ where all positive tourists and locals are confined to a hotel room.

Heidi’s COVID transfer ambulance. (Photo by Heidi Shepherd)

To make matters worse, I came to realise that what I assumed would just be a two-week stint was not the case. There was no guarantee I’d be free after I’d served my 14 days. Unlike the U.K., where isolation is only necessary for 10 days following a positive result, in Madeira, you can’t leave until you produce a negative result.

As I learned, it can take a number of weeks (sometimes months) until you produce a negative result. So on day 14, as I packed my bag with my flight booked, I came to find out my test was still positive. By this point, horror stories were starting to spread across balconies about numerous people that had been there for up to two months.

So I settled into life in the ‘Covid Hotel’ for the foreseeable. Guests were confined to their room and could not make use of the hotel facilities. The hotel’s website promoted ‘outdoor activities are available with appropriate security measures,’ but this was not the case. Thankfully, I did have a balcony.

There was certainly no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for Heidi. (Photo by Heidi Shepherd)

Meals were delivered to my room three times a day. Staffers knocked on my door and I had to wait five minutes before I could open it to collect my meal.

Dinner is served. (Photo by Heidi Shepherd)

The food was consistently cold, packaged in takeaway boxes with plastic cutlery and — quite frankly — the least-appetising food I’ve ever had. I got bread and an orange in the morning then a piece of fish/meat with either rice or potato for lunch and dinner. Vegetables were a delicacy, so I was lucky if I got one a day. I also told the hotel on arrival I don’t eat pork, and twice, they served up pork claiming it was ‘pink chicken’ – I went hungry those nights. In fact, I went hungry a lot of nights.

A breakfast of champions (Photo by Heidi Shepherd)
Meat and no veg. (Photo by Heidi Shepherd)
Some welcome colour and at least two of Heidi’s five-a-day (Photo by Heidi Shepherd)

There were no ‘normal’ hotel facilities available. I couldn’t order room service or send my laundry for dry cleaning. They provided me with washing up liquid (as in, for dishes) to wash my clothes in the sink. Having only brought hand luggage for my four-night getaway, I had to do this a lot. Madeira is also subject to a lot of wind, so my scarce wardrobe became even more scarce after a few washes with numerous items of clothing blown from my balcony.

Alcohol was prohibited.

It’s safe to say my daily routine slowed down. It was more of a mental challenge than anything else, and I found that making a routine helped me to stay sane. I would wake up, exercise, eat very little, FaceTime, Netflix and sleep.

I also learned you can do anything if you put your mind to it. I usually run three to four times a week, and it was a shock for my body to lose this, so I ran 5Ks in my room. Yes, it was 600 laps. Yes, I was dizzy. But my body was craving exercise, so I had to find ways to adapt.

After two weeks, I’d also lost so much weight I figured out ways to get more food. I managed to get hold of a local shop who delivered a food parcel to my room and learned there wasn’t much that couldn’t be cooked in a kettle – cauliflower, eggs, pasta – I tried it all.

Thankfully, I was tested again after three weeks and was allowed to leave. I can’t even put into words the relief, as the thought of another week locked up was just unbearable.

Having now been home for a couple of weeks, I’ve found great pleasure in the littlest of things – eating from a plate with metal cutlery, drinking from a glass rather than a plastic cup, my first hot meal in three weeks, hugging another person and being able to go outside for a walk.

I’m sharing this because I’d hate for anyone else to be subject to a similar experience. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster to say the least. I’m not saying don’t travel, just do your research properly and always take the option of having a test before you go — that £120 on a test in the UK would have been the best money I’d ever spent!”

Related: Everything you need to know about COVID-19 testing for travel

While non-essential travel remains off the cards for now, Heidi’s story is definitely something to bear in mind when planning for your next trip, whether it be when this lockdown ends, or later into 2021.

If you have the option to test before you travel, take it! We recommend knowing before going so you don’t find yourself stuck in a similar situation.

Featured image by Heidi Shepherd

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