Trip to UK shows how much COVID-19 has changed London

It was as if COVID-19, Brexit and the invasion of Ukraine had caused a huge sink-hole through which many things were beginning to disappear

 The Thames and Windsor Castle in the background, with far fewer tourists. (photo credit: ROBERT HERSOWITZ)
The Thames and Windsor Castle in the background, with far fewer tourists.
(photo credit: ROBERT HERSOWITZ)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

It’s been two-and-a-half years since I last traveled to London or any place outside of Israel, so I was somewhat anxious at the prospect of reentering a world that I had left behind. A great deal has happened since December 2019 when I last left Israel.

Apart from corona, so many other global events have occurred including a few personal ones that have affected me. After returning from a business trip in early 2020, I was diagnosed with cancer. Thankfully I am now in remission, but the combination of undergoing chemotherapy and other treatments together with trying to dodge the COVID bullet left me vulnerable and uneasy. And so when my doctor finally gave me the green light to travel, I was still a little apprehensive.

My apprehension reached several peaks during the trip beginning with a first foray into Ben-Gurion Airport. My wife and I amalgamated five sets of corona-canceled tickets into two business class tickets. We traveled in the middle of June, and despite the upgrade, could not escape the multiple queues of passengers after checking in. We stood for over half an hour until we finally reached the lounge, which was also rather crowded.

All the while we had on our masks, unlike most of our fellow travelers. It seemed to everyone that the virus is now a thing of the past, and no one appeared outwardly perturbed by it. After boarding and taking our sumptuous seats on the Dreamliner, they kept announcing that passengers would do well to keep their masks on during the flight. Most people other than our senior selves ignored the recommendation. We soon settled down to canapés, mineral water and the challenge of figuring out how the entertainment system worked. We felt like two hillbillies.

 A deserted street in Golders Green. (credit: ROBERT HERSOWITZ) A deserted street in Golders Green. (credit: ROBERT HERSOWITZ)

Arriving in London from Israel

If Ben-Gurion was chaotic, Heathrow’s Terminal Two was a complete shock. It was Sunday afternoon when we disembarked, only to be herded into a line that snaked its way endlessly through cordon after cordon until we had walked for what felt like five kilometers.

By the time we got to passport control, we were exhausted and longed for the womb-like safety of business class. We were lucky enough to have retrieved our baggage. The shortage of baggage handlers throughout the world has caused thousands of passengers to end up at the airlines’ delayed or lost luggage counters adding countless wasted hours of misery to their journeys.

The good news and bad news on this trip to London

On this trip there was good and bad news. Our car service driver was there waiting at the barrier with our last name displayed clearly on a board. What we had not expected was a price hike of over 50% compared with the same journey two and a half years ago. As we drove in silence, I looked around at the familiar scenery of the soul-less M4 motorway and the heavy traffic. At first, nothing seemed to have changed except for the traffic and the roadworks. As we got nearer to the familiar streets of Northwest London, we began to notice how many stores and businesses were closed. The driver also pointed to signs indicating the £12 charges in the new ULE Zones (Ultra Low Emission Zones), where owners of vehicles older than six years must pay a £12 fee every day to use many local roads.

“The problem is that no one can sell their old cars, and newish secondhand cars are hard to come by,” he told us.

“The problem is that no one can sell their old cars, and newish secondhand cars are hard to come by.”

London car service driver

What hadn’t changed as we reached our destination in Finchley was the pleasant cool weather and the rows of houses with their verdant gardens and colorful blooms.

As we went about our business the next day, we began to notice yet more changes. Customer service in the true English tradition seemed to have disappeared. The stores including the well-known brands were understaffed and understocked. It was as if corona, Brexit and the invasion of Ukraine had caused a huge sink-hole through which many things were beginning to disappear. When we asked for certain items, we were told that they were unavailable and that we should look for them online.

“But what about trying things on?” my wife asked.

The young sales assistant shrugged. The supermarkets were no different. Our friends told us that they could not get sunflower seed oil and other staples such as certain brands of crackers because of the Ukrainian agricultural supply-chain crisis. We were told that many people in the retail and hospitality sector had not returned to their former places of employment. Too spooked by the thought of stop-start lay-offs, they were seeking other jobs including those that would allow them to work from home. Many banks including our own local Lloyds Bank branch had closed. I then had to face the challenge of getting my UK passport renewed.

Renewing a UN passport

In the past, the procedure was very simple. All I had to do was to make an appointment in town, fill out forms online, pay a substantial amount of money (which given the circumstances I was prepared to do), and then appear at the Passport Office with the necessary documentation and then wait to collect my passport later, on the same day.

Sadly, this was just a pipe dream. The online premium service had no appointments for the foreseeable future. I was told by others that it can now take three or four months to get a passport renewed. As if trying to console me, another friend reminded me that similar things were happening in Israel and in the US.

The UK's national rail and underground railway strike

Another hurdle that we had to overcome during our visit was the national rail and underground railway strike. The strikes took place on the very two days that we had booked for an outdoor opera and an open-air performance of Shakespeare’s Henry V at the Globe Theatre. There was no guarantee of us being able to get a cab or an Uber back to where we were staying, so we reluctantly decided to cancel.

On a Wednesday, I had to travel into town to meet a business colleague who I hadn’t seen for a number of years. I met him in the financial district not far from the Bank of England in Bishopsgate. The city was empty. Even though there was no strike scheduled for that day, most people had been caught out by the aftermath of the strike from the previous day, and many had decided to work from home.

I had to cut short my meeting for fear of not being able to get back to where I was staying, after the car service called to cancel. My colleague commented on how the political mood in the UK reminded him of the 1970s. I told him how well I remembered the upheaval during the miners’ strike, when Britain was on a four-day week.

Over the ensuing days there were reports in the media about future planned strikes. British Airways was threatening a strike scheduled to coincide with the summer vacation during peak travel time. British barristers and legal professionals who worked in the court system were also posturing their disgruntlement, and threatening a strike in the following weeks.

To add to the depressing atmosphere, news about inflation and a looming world recession seemed to permeate the news, with Britain registering its highest rate of inflation in decades. Stories about supply shortages, price increases, fuel price hikes, belt tightening and families having to set severe limits on weekly spending seemed to be appearing everywhere in the press, on social media and on the television news.

Pre-COVID London nostalgia vanishing

My nostalgic notions of being able to go back to London to re-capture nuances of life before corona were vanishing by the hour.

After appreciating three or four gloriously sunny days at the beginning of our visit, the weather changed, and the rude reminder of gray, chilly, wet meteorological conditions set in. We did have an opportunity to watch a few exciting opening games of tennis from Wimbledon from the comfort of our hotel armchairs. At first it was a relief to experience the wet breezy coolness of an English summer, but after a while, we began to look forward to going home.

The return to Israel

The “return to Israel” experience was slightly less fraught than our departure, but was still uncomfortable with crowds of new PCR test liberated vacationers thronging the airports and train stations.

Landing back in Israel was a relief. For some reason I felt a lot safer to be back. The electronic border control system worked, and we were able to get through the physical obstacles far more quickly. Our luggage arrived and we were met by our friendly cab driver who drove us home.

It was only after being back for a few days that we realized that what we had experienced in London has become a worldwide phenomenon. Inflation, supply shortages, and soaring prices of gas and commodities are beginning to impact people’s lives across the globe provoking industrial action, political instability and economic turmoil.

Economic turmoil hits Israel

Sadly, Israel has not escaped these afflictions. While we were away, the coalition collapsed, gas prices continued to rise, and the TASE continues to dip.

Looking on the brighter side, the OECD has given Israel a much more optimistic prognosis for the future: “GDP is projected to grow by 4.8% in 2022 and 3.4% in 2023. Risks are skewed to the downside, related to a prolonged war in Ukraine, new strains of the corona virus, internal political uncertainty, and an intensification of security incidents.”

These are issues that Israelis have learned to live with and adapt to for decades. After our 10-day sojourn abroad, my wife and I both decided that the grass these days is not always greener outside of Israel, making us grateful to return to our home in the Judean Hills. ■