This last day in my new city starts very early with call to Kylie. She has booked me and Air BnB near to home in Brisbane to self-isolate for 14 days. Initially I am just shocked and a bit horrified – it is first thing and my levels of anxiety have been sky-high for days. It is only after half an hour that the complete sense of this measure kicks in. I’m going to be highly exposed. Having the flight this evening, I start doing a series of chores to get the flat ready for what could be an extended stay in Australia. I’m locking down and locking up. I clean out the fridge and freeze what I can, all with dire news on Radio 4 in the background, simply dire statistics. Government has banned non-essential travel from today, so I really do not where that leaves this trip today. I pay a visit to the landlord and landlady who live next door. I stand the other side of Jane’s car and tell her my decision, and she is completely supportive. They can help themselves to all food in the house. We say a sad goodbye and good luck. I am ready to go by 11 am and just have hand-luggage to prevent any unnecessary contacts. The flight is at 20.40 pm tonight from Manchester, so acres of time, but I do want to be there at least 4 hours prior just in case there is any negotiation or visa checking issues at check-in. I may not be back in Leeds this year.
The sense of anxiety waiting to leave is awful, so I vacuum clean manically. I feel like a real white bread, I am short of breath. At 2 pm I start the 3 mile walk to Leeds station, avoiding transport. It is a lovely cold blue day, and I am conscious of the puffs of breath of people I pass. The city is just bizarre – people in shops, cafes, and chatting and smoking. Homeless are everywhere, and I know that the combination of poverty, respiratory problems and lack of access to sanitation will kill many of them unless there is any intervention. At the station I check first for cancellations, and sure enough there are multiple cancellations due to staff shortages. Britain is voting with its feet. But after an hour wait I get a direct train to Manchester airport. I feel dreadful and sit on my own. I decide to take the soluble paracetamol every 4 hours, and dose up like that until I leave Dubai at least. I am sure I am not infectious as I have zero symptoms and have been careful in past weeks; more careful than most. To have COVID-19 in the UK today would be unlucky, but clearly it is in the community. There is a stag party in the carriage, voluble, drinking and in good spirits, all off to Manchester for weekend. They are quite funny actually but it adds to my sense of despair.
At the airport I am stunned by the snaking lines for my flight in the check in hall. There are 100s of people lined up for Emirates EK 020. Having just hand luggage I am put in shorter line and wait for an hour. None of the staff have masks (like me) and are handling the documents and luggage of each passenger. This is not normal. I now feel shaky. We become aware as a crowd that can’t look away of a number of UK passport holders being turned back, one man clearly pleading and crying. I see him leave the terminal some 1 hour later.
I’m let through after my Permanent Resident visa is verified. Passing through security I am just relieved. The terminal however is a shock. It is getting dark out =side now at about 530 and the lighting in Manchester is low. The terminal is full with 6 or 7 flights left to go that evening. Almost all the shops and outlets are closed, it is not an airport that I recognise, more like a ghost ship. People look scared, and that is probably how I look as well. There is a Boot Chemist and a bar open. I buy hand sanitizer (at last) with good alcohol content: no masks. I buy a beer at the bar and sit on my own (as is everyone). The UK Chancellor is delivering the emergency COVID-19 budget to the chamber. It is huge and unprecedented. The billions drift over the subtitle running line. Huge measures for wages and guarantees for business. Investment in health too! I am sure in coming weeks levels of hypocrisy about the NHS will sky-rocket. I chat to the barman briefly buying a second beer. He tells me this is one of the last days that Manchester airport will be open, they expect to close by the weekend. I ask him what he will do, how will he manage with loss of income? He looks really forlorn and says he has a job lined up in a night club in the city. I do not have the heart to tell him. I a deserted McDonalds a monitor broadcasts the parliamentary response to the budget. I catch the Shadow Chancellor talking about the importance of the ‘planting season’, it seems we are using a whole new language, a language of the past and present and worried future.
I have 2 hours to wait. In the end I just stretch my legs and pace around in a largely dark terminal, sitting in an empty booth outside some burrito chain. It is also getting colder as if this place is locking down, shutting down. When the gate opens there is a slow movement down a long wide corridor with multiple closed gates. Along the corridor, maybe 300 meters to the end are people spaced out on chair, many wearing masks. Everyone looks nervous. I realise that everyone, some 500 people, are all getting on this flight.
People are trying to get out before the borders close and flights stop. The only other flight now is to Cork. Many hushed conversations on phones, and a woman three seats down asks me if this is all for the Emirates flight, she can’t quite believe the numbers. A group of Chinese, about 8 I would guess students, all arrive and begin to put full hazz gear on, masks, plastic lab goggles, hoods. The works. They are very much ready - I just feel exposed with my bottle of hand sanitizer and soluble pills. We begin to embark and it has something of the last days of Saigon about it except with polite airline staff. We are at the end of normal things here.
I finally get on to a full A380, some 500 hundred souls all in various states of dress and preparedness. One neighbour has full mask and gloves, the other like me nothing. We share my hand sanitizer. I cannot sleep and watch films for the 7 hours, surreptitiously knocking back paracetamol. The man behind me coughs incessantly, and I feel myself flinching. The staff are cool calm, beautifully dressed, the women in makeup – none of them have any masks or protection. Its surreal, completely surreal. All is dark, eerie and just that steady thrum of engines, people coughing (wet cough/dry cough?) and sleeping, babies crying. I fear for these staff, their health, their jobs all starting to disappear.