David Barrett after 32 years living in Thailand this former senior travel executive recently returned home to the UK to set up home. Here’s his story...
One year on and a reversal of fortune. A year ago, well just over, on 18th March 2020 I flew to the UK on a mission to view a prospective property investment in Cornwall. I was in Southeast England for three days prior to the planned train ride and trek to Cornwall. Day Two in the UK, with Brits grappling with the early days of the pandemic, and I went to visit my bank for an appointment. As I walked into the bank wearing a mask, I could hear customers and staff gasp as they stepped back and looked at me in fear as I was wearing a face mask. A young clerk rushed up to me and ushered me into a small meeting room. The bank manager then came in and was horrified to see me wearing a face mask. “Are you ill?” she questioned. “Have you got the Chinese virus?” I replied firmly that I was wearing the mask for my safety, as she could well be infected and carrying the virus. At which point the young clerk rushed into the room, hovering above the seated bank manager and began to spray a fine mist of disinfectant into the air. The droplets did not reach me but landed on the manager’s laptop and hair. Annoyed, the manager scolded the clerk saying “You’ve wet my keyboard!”. Before the clerk had a chance to justify his biosecurity actions, the manager pointed to the door and wiped down her computer.
After a couple of minutes of conversation of why I was wearing a mask, the bank manager(ess) let down her guard and started crying saying she was under a lot of stress. As a mother of two and grandmother she wanted to work from home but the bank, at the time, was insisting staff work a full day of 8am to 5pm. She revealed her concerns of meeting customers and the risk she was exposed to. I recommended she buy masks, which at that time were not widely available in the UK and hardly worn, as you were viewed as a sick person if you were spotted wearing a mask.
I went into Starbucks and presented cash and was surprised that they refused to take or touch payment by cash and demanded contactless payment by card. A new experience for me.
I then grabbed a taxi and my driver asked why I was wearing a mask. He thought it was rational to wear protective face gear but commented that he did not know where to buy masks that were safe as masks and toilet paper “came from China and are most likely infected with the virus”.
A weird 48 hours in the UK. Having left Bangkok which was mostly masked up, and then arriving to the UK where people wearing face masks were mocked or avoided, it appeared Thailand was ahead of the curve in control on containment of COVID. With jetlag, I was still in Thai time and on Day 3 in the UK I woke up at 2am and checked my emails and social channels. I saw that Thailand was going into lockdown within 48 hours. Fit to fly certificate. COVID insurance. And other hoops to jump through would be needed to re-enter Thailand. I was online and booked Gulf Air to fly back to Thailand, departing in 8 hours. Cornwall trip was cancelled and I made a mad dash to Heathrow Airport. It was a little chaotic at the airport with myself and four Thais refused at check in counter to board the flight as the Flight Manager insisted “Thailand is now closed to international arrivals without COVID-free certificate and Fit To Fly document from the Royal Thai Embassy.” Thankfully a few phone calls and we were allowed to board as Thailand was not closing it’s borders in 22 hours and documents were not required until then. Got on the plane and arrived in Bangkok six hours before lockdown and the new, strict control of international arrivals. I heard the queue at the Royal Thai Embassy the next day stretched along the street with applicants of the Fit To Fly certificate. I had dodged being locked out of Thailand and felt I was in a safe place with Krungthep masked for protection. Bangkok was in a good place with being masked up as many of the city residents, including myself, had been wearing face masks a year before anyone had ever heard of coronavirus. Living in a city with choking air pollution and some days an AQI reaching a stratospheric 150, city officials had been alerting residents to mask up when going outside due to the air pollution. So wearing masks was not alien to Bangkokians.
Back in Thailand, I remotely bought the house in Cornwall, unseen, in a town I had never visited. I had done plenty of research and felt very positive with the purchase. Many thought it was sheer madness, but I felt Cornwall’s popularity could escalate with Brits on WFH. Working from home allowed employees to be located anywhere of their choice and not stuck in a city office. This new found freedom or working nomads has driven demand for Cornwall in the past three months.
Becoming the owner of a 1779-built heritage house needing a fair amount of work on it, I was keen to visit my new home, but decided to delay a return to the UK as Thailand was reportedly one of the five safest countries in the world with containment of COVID-19. As months passed, I was pleased to be in Thailand and concerned watching UK from afar go into lockdown, wrestle with wave one, a second wave, a second lockdown and numbers of infected and deaths skyrocketing, compared to Thailand which was a safe haven.
Now one year on, I bit the bullet and flew back to the UK. COVID test pre-flight, a collection of documents showing I was fit to fly and had booked COVID tests in the UK on Day Two and Day Eight meant I could fly back to the UK. A strange flight experience with biosecurity protocols in place. I got through Border Control at Heathrow Airport to find a UK that was very different to the kingdom I had fled a year before.
Oh! how the tables have tuned! I left Thailand in a bit of a mess with cases of COVID increasing in a new unexpected wave, that took officials and citizens by surprise and with widespread shock and alarm, and arrived in the UK with everyone masked up, calm, alert to transmission risk, and emerging from tough lockdown measures.
UK 34.5 v Thailand 1. That was the score when I arrived in the UK 13 days ago. The UK has successfully and efficiently vaccinated more than 34 million “at risk” people to remove the risk of distressing the National Health System (NHS). Brits have put systems in place, Track & Trace, lockdown and masking up to beat the latest wave of infections. And it’s worked. As I have arrived back in the UK there is an air of cautious optimism as UK emerges from firm lockdown measures with restaurants, pubs and other social businesses reopening in the most recent phase. More relaxation of preventative measures are due in July, in time for summer. However, when going into confined spaces such as shops or on public transport, wearing a mask remains a must. Less so when walking outdoors.
Sadly, one year on and the tables have turned with Thailand now in a pickle with citywide concern over the recent increase in cases and slowness of a vaccination programme. Confusion in Thailand dominates. When Thailand was basking in being one of the safest countries in the world, Britain was implementing measures and a world-class vaccination programme that has paid off. Possibly money, greed and politics are at play with Thailand’s vaccination rollout, which has delayed a much-needed nationwide programme of inoculation. Who wants to travel to a country that has been one of the most popular places to travel and meet, with 40 million visitors a year, when the country is not vaccinated? Those holding a vaccine passport, whatever that will look like, are less likely to choose a country that is way behind in vaccinating it’s tourism and hospitality frontliners. Oh dear Thailand! One year on and I now feel safe in the UK and have no desire to return to Bangkok given the current state of concern and cases.
Quoting Reuters “Travel agencies in Thailand are selling coronavirus 'vaccine tours' to the United States, as some wealthy Thais grow impatient awaiting mass inoculations that are still a month away amid the country's biggest outbreak so far.”
Signing off cautiously in a safer place in Cornwall, whilst the UK is closely monitoring new strains of the virus and efficacy of the world-leading vaccine programme. Thailand, please get your act together, quickly as you’re dragging your feet.