UK or US: unavoidable covid travel edition
October 15, 2021 11:17 AM   Subscribe

I'm in Italy, and need to leave for a few weeks for visa reasons (to avoid running out of my 90 days in the Shengen zone while paperwork sorts itself out). Covid-wise, is the UK a safe place to wait this out?

My wife and I have booked tickets to, and hotels in, London for the next few weeks (refundable/changeable). We also have a return flight to the US (NY or CA) we could use. We envisioned hopping to the UK as a quick, easy trip to reset while waiting on the paperwork in Italy. But covid-wise it suddenly looks absolutely terrible. The US doesn't look much better, frankly, but it's home and would be easier to manage & deal. We'd go to upstate NY/Berkshires or SF Bay Area, but the flights would be much, much longer.

We are paranoid, double-vaxxed 40-somethings, and wear masks indoors, full stop. We do not eat at restaurants indoors. The plan was to eat takeout and/or cook in a serviced hotel/apartment. But public transport and store visits are inevitable.

Are Londoners as casual about covid as it seems from news photos? It appears that on the tube and in stores few wears masks. As our trip approaches we are suddenly getting freaked out about apparent covid casualness. Various numbers look at their worst. Are UK people as unconcerned as they seem?

We have come this far, so far, safely - and in Italy people are religious about masking up inside (save restaurants, which we aren't doing) and the green pass restrictions, despite recent protests, are reassuring to have in place.

Sorry for wall of text - TL;DR :
London-dwellers - is the city a safe place to be right now or should we head back to the states?

*not interested in generalized speculation or discussion of visa issues in Italy.
posted by niicholas to Travel & Transportation around London, England (18 answers total)
You could come to Scotland instead. Mask wearing is still mandatory on public transport and in shops, and while not exactly enforced by armed guards, is still the norm in those places, in a way that is no longer the case in England - I really noticed the difference when I visited England last month. In England, mask-wearing in shops was the exception, the reverse is true in Scotland right now.

Infection rates in Scotland are somewhat lower than England (1.63% in England, 1.26% in Scotland). Though looking at that page, you'd be best heading to Northern Ireland, where they're lower still (0.82%).
posted by penguin pie at 11:44 AM on October 15, 2021 [11 favorites]

You specified Schengen rather than EU. Ireland is in EU but outside Schengen. It's not New Zealand zero-covid but infect.rates are lower than UK while adult vaxx rate > 90%. As penguin pie notes UK is not London and rates vary across the country.
posted by BobTheScientist at 11:55 AM on October 15, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: SF Bay Area is feeling pretty safe these days. In Santa Clara county the numbers are low and dropping, the vax rate is high and mask wearing is also very high - at least in places where I hang out. Actual airplane travel seems a little risky but not too bad - the excellent filtration system makes it much safer than most equivalent activities.
posted by metahawk at 11:56 AM on October 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

I have some friends in a similar Schengen situation, though their travel to London was less refundable, and I haven't heard where they finally went but their plan was to get to London and immediately head out to somewhere less intense where they can get a holiday rental walkable to groceries and basic services and hunker down. You don't have to stay in London, and it sounds like you might even have the flexibility to pick a different city to fly into.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:09 PM on October 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My friends in London report that mask-wearing in shops is way down since the legal requirement to wear masks indoors in England was dropped. Masks are still mandatory on the Tube, but even there, people talk about ~50% compliance, varying a bit by time of day. I'm elsewhere in SE England and it's similar here, except that hardly anyone is wearing a mask on the train.

Are UK people as unconcerned as they seem?

It's a mix, but the unconcerned people are overrepresented in shops and on public transport: the more concerned you are, the less likely you are to be lingering in enclosed public places.

To get a feel for the current case rates, here's the official Covid case rate map for the UK. You can see that it's not at all evenly spread around the country, and that London itself isn't actually doing too badly. Postcode SW1A 0AA will get you zoomed into London (it's the postcode for the Palace of Westminster) and then you can click around to see the figures for the different areas.

What you can't see from the map is the breakdown of cases by age. It's most prevalent in children at the moment (low vaccination rates in under-16s + in-person schooling + no masks in schools now). Lots of interesting data here. The age groups you're more likely to be rubbing shoulders with on the Tube or in the corner shops are less likely to have it.

All in all, London is probably not going to feel very safe to you, after Italy; but if you can get past that (I speak as someone who absolutely can't get past that, by the way), it's not as bad as it seems.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 12:24 PM on October 15, 2021 [5 favorites]

Scotland or Ireland are indeed a better bet. While you won't get any grief for wearing a mask on public transport or in shops in England, and it's not unusual to do so, it's not the majority (recent experience in different provincial cities). It is quite a bit quieter than pre-Covid days so I think the assumption that people who are more cautious are just not outside the house all that much holds.
posted by plonkee at 12:39 PM on October 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Just want to say: I deeply appreciate all the thoughtful answers so far. Thank you.
posted by niicholas at 12:41 PM on October 15, 2021

Best answer: Just wanted to point out, in case you find the US to be your best option, NYC has the lowest positivity rate in the state among the regions by a significant amount (1.2% today). Overall, at least 70% of NYCers have had at least one shot, and it's above 80% in Manhattan. Proof of vaccination is required for most leisure indoor activities and masks are required on transit (not perfect compliance, but [anecdotally] on buses very good and on the subway still pretty decent). Further, our healthcare system is currently functional; you're unlikely to find yourself dependent on a hospital that can't find room for you, because we have more capacity and lower infection rates than upstate.
posted by praemunire at 12:50 PM on October 15, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: My partner just got back from their unavoidable first flight to the UK and back (we've been back before but by car). Now we are both sick and unsurprised. We live in a part of France where people are generally both sensible and careful, and were both really shocked to see how careless many (most?) people in England are - both London and two other cities plus a more rural area. I agree Scotland would be a better bet. Or Northern Ireland?
We've tested negative so far but feel horrendous. I won't be going back for Christmas this year. Anecdata of course but there you go. I feel we're not outliers, looking at case rates.
posted by tardigrade at 1:10 PM on October 15, 2021 [4 favorites]

But public transport and store visits are inevitable.

It's worth noting that many UK supermarkets offer inexpensive delivery services. If you just want to hang out at your rented apartment and cook for yourself, then you don't need to go into a store for groceries, and you can order heavy stuff without needing to carry it home on public transport.
posted by offog at 1:17 PM on October 15, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Incredibly casual. Just mindblowingly casual. I wouldn’t go to a London airport, or get on the Tube at all if you are concerned about people not distancing and wearing masks. It’s about 50/50 mask wearers, but everything feels very packed in and busy. Illness - flu season colds and COVID is kicking off with a bang. Everybody’s gone back to going into work and on public transport with obvious symptoms of illness, hacking and coughing all over the place and they just say “it’s Not-COVID” afterwards which makes it OK, apparently. We don’t have to isolate even if someone in the household has COVID, as long as we are double vaxxed . Combined with the recent ‘false negatives’ scandal where the national testing programme has produced tens of thousands of false negative results, leaving people plague spreading everywhere, it’s a weird place to be. If I could be elsewhere I would be elsewhere.
posted by eastboundanddown at 2:21 PM on October 15, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I live in London and would say the tube is more like 65:35 mask to no mask, and supermarkets in my area are similar, but it does vary higher and lower. Definitely a big drop in masking since say July. Restaurants and pubs feel almost like they did pre-covid and I recently attended a large, full capacity concert in a several thousand seat venue which felt quite surreal.
posted by knapah at 3:40 PM on October 15, 2021

Best answer: I visited London and Brighton in August and was shocked at how casual mask compliance was, it felt ‘normal’ when it really shouldn’t. I accidentally walked through a covid vaccine protest in Brighton (it was outside the shopping centre), and got yelled at about wearing my mask. I can’t speak for Ireland but Scotland is definitely a better choice.
posted by ellieBOA at 11:59 PM on October 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Two articles this morning that might help.
posted by ellieBOA at 1:34 AM on October 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

Strong agree on people in England being relatively careless. Only about 30% of people seem to be wearing masks in my area of not-London on public transport.

For shopping I recommend going out in the early morning and avoiding transport when possible. I've noticed more people wearing masks and social distancing in the morning, and it's less crowded.

Takeout is fine, but be aware that some takeout in some areas opens after 5:00pm so just have a quick look at whatever area you're in.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 10:18 AM on October 16, 2021

Honestly, if you have any other realistic option I can't imagine choosing to come here. We have, I believe, the highest case rates in western Europe and are, as a country, in complete denial. I really wouldn't if you don't have to.
EllieBOA's links are worth a look, they seem to reflect the reality pretty accurately.
posted by BlueNorther at 8:58 AM on October 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

Another vote for Scotland. Mask wearing is nearly universal here and very good on public transport - i was shocked at the difference when i went down to London recently!
posted by ukdanae at 2:56 AM on October 18, 2021

Want to add to my comment that mask wearing has dropped precipitously in London recently. I've taken several tube trips in the last few days with maybe 10% masking and it's dropped in shops too. Everyone has lost the run of themselves.
posted by knapah at 12:46 AM on October 20, 2021

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