New York – where vaccine passes and masks are the price of liberty

EDITORIAL USE ONLY A Virgin Atlantic staff member poses as the Statue of Liberty at London Heathrow

A Virgin Atlantic staff member poses as the Statue of Liberty at Heathrow Airport last month to celebrate the reopening of the transatlantic travel corridor, more than 600 days since the US travel ban was introduced. - Credit: PA

It’s Groundhog Day – again. How very predictable that five months after so-called Freedom Day the country is once more in a state of emergency, its citizens – at least those who are sentient – anxious and retreating from the new normal of everyday life.

The unvaccinated, who have most to fear – and whose presence causes the rest of us to be both fearful and angry – are of course the most blasé. They regard the return of masks as an infringement of liberty. As for vaccine passports...

I’m just back from New York, and the rules about pre-departure tests (a no-brainer) came into force as I was mid-flight. More of that in a moment, but the first thing to say about New York in the time of Covid is that enjoying what we once regarded as simple everyday pleasures – eating out, going to the cinema or theatre, a museum, even a zoo or sports stadium – require you to show your vaccination certificate and, if you’re over 18, identification. From the smallest downtown diner to the vast uptown Beacon Theatre, there were no exceptions, not even for medical or religious reasons. Everywhere I went, my bona fides were scrutinised, very carefully.

Journalist Liz Thomson

Journalist Liz Thomson - Credit: © Yada-Yada

There was overwhelming adherence to mask-wearing – even backstage at the Blue Note, where masks were lowered while you sipped a drink and raised while you chatted. I took an elderly friend to an audiology appointment: the doctors and nurses all wore masks in which a transparent window allowed patients to lipread.

Of course, there’ve been objections, but New Yorkers overwhelmingly accept such minor incursions as a price worth paying for a life that feels pretty normal. Far from curtailing their freedoms, masks and vaccine certificates provide liberation. In Manhattan, infections were low.

Before Covid, I was opposed to ID cards – why should a law-abiding citizen have to prove who they are? In general terms I still am, but we’re in a different world, one in which there can be no freedom without responsibility. Graham Brady’s talk of living in “a gulag” is risible – and under this government there are many scarier examples of authoritarianism than mask-wearing.

The Stock Exchange in New York, USA.

The Stock Exchange in New York, USA. - Credit: PA

But back to my journey home. As I’d planned to do before the government rule change, I pitched up 36 hours before departure at one of the LabQ Diagnostics’ mobile testing centres now adorning Manhattan street corners. I waited in line, scanned their QR code, entered my details. A doctor inserted the now-familiar probe up my nose. There was no charge, and the results arrived the next morning.

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Sadly, my local Muswell Hill pharmacist was rather less efficient: I phoned requesting a day two test and was instructed to email my details in return for which I’d receive a test number to insert in the Passenger Locator Form. On Monday (they close Sundays) it had not arrived, so I emailed a reminder before going to a meeting. Still nothing arrived so I phoned again. They’d forgotten me but promised a test number “in two hours” at which point, I explained, I’d be en route to the airport. No problem, it would be on my phone before I got to JFK. Definitely.

It wasn’t, so I tried to book a test at Heathrow Arrivals. There were no slots, so I searched the long list of government-approved testers – on a mobile. Many charged over £100. Honeyman, a mere £66, required a Kings Cross drop-off that made a mockery of isolating-until-proved-negative. I paid, received the confirmatory number – and then found myself locked out of the PLF and forced to start over. Two hours later and approaching meltdown, I was finally able to check in.

The email from UK immigration duly informed me that “you do not have to take a Covid-19 test before you travel to England if you qualify as fully vaccinated and you have not been in a red list country”. Nice to know HMG updates its forms!

When the testing kit arrived, an address label revealed its final destination to be a lab in Barnard Castle.

Liz Thomson is a journalist, author, broadcaster and interviewer. Visit www.lizthomson.co.uk