It was meant to be the Christmas of all Christmasses - a chance to get together for the first time en famille after more than two and a half years apart.
My sister-in-law owns a holiday let on the Shropshire/Wales border and we were going to be 25 on Christmas Day - grandparents, siblings, cousins, and one stray Australian who has not been home herself for more than two years.
Our extremely organised host had wanted the week to be perfect - it would be the first Christmas without my mother-in-law who sadly died this year. She was a wonderful hostess herself who always made the festivities an extremely special affair. My parents and sister plus kids were invited too, so it really was going to be a Christmas to remember.
But then Omicron happened, and like so many other families, we saw our Christmas plans quickly unravelling, leaving us with no option but to spend it here in France à 5 yet again.
The primary reason for our hasty cancellation was the new travel regulations which stipulate that, despite us all being vaccinated, we would have to do three tests each in order to fly to England and back. Three tests each means 15 tests for our family of five, which, on top of flights, car hire (which has gone through the roof since Covid) and Christmas presents, was just not possible for us this year.
The spread of the Omicron variant at such a startling speed in South Africa triggered a quick succession of changes to testing rules for travel. The UK earlier this month brought back the need for all passengers including those vaccinated to show proof of a negative PCR or lateral flow test taken no longer than 48 hours before departure.
In France these tests cost €49 for a PCR or €29 for a lateral flow. However, as we are fully vaccinated in the eyes of the French government we are covered by our carte de santé and do not have to pay.
Another consideration to throw into the mix when we were weighing up our decision was the lack of clarity over the number of vaccines our three children needed to enter the UK.
They have all had one vaccine as they have recovered from Covid - which is fully recognized in France. But our eldest daughter is 18 so would have also had to have a second dose to be able to travel to the UK without having to quarantine for 10 days. She was about to have the second dose just as the regulations changed earlier this month. For the other two under 18 - we are lost as to the rules for minors in the UK who have had one vaccination and Covid and how to prove it.
The UK rules also specify that all travellers, vaccinated or not, must isolate on arrival and carry out a PCR test within the first two days.
Once a negative result has been received, you are then allowed to mingle freely. Buying a test at the airport on arrival was not an option - firstly because the price of £345 (€403) was too high - and secondly - because all the tests at London Gatwick were already booked!
The site advised me to book at another Express centre nearby but after trying four other centres in the vicinity, I gave up.
The cheapest Home Day Two testing that I could find online was £42.50 (€49) - which got a very un-reassuring 2.8/5 customer satisfaction review. Having got stung twice before on previous trips back when tests did not arrive when they said they would, I wasn't prepared to go for anything less than 5/5 - for which we would have to pay a minimum of £55 - so before we had even left my sister-in-laws house where we would be isolating, we were down €322.
The final test requirement is a PCR or antigen test to be taken less than 48 hours before you fly back to France, which would have cost another £150 (€175). Total price of testing for 5 vaccinated people to fly home for Christmas = €497
To be honest, we could have scraped together the extra euros, but what would happen if one of those test results came back as positive? We all risked getting stuck in the UK, which, while the idea of spending longer with family was appealing, the reality was not.
Two of our children have important exams this year, not to mention vital rugby matches which they would hate to miss. Our daughter is working at a ‘proper’ job for the first time during her year off, and my husband is back at ‘school’ doing a diploma for which his rentrée is January 3. Ironically my office-based job would probably be the least troublesome as I could ‘work from home’ very easily.
This fear of getting stuck and unable to get on with 2022 has left us with no choice but to postpone our family Christmas until next year…. Fingers crossed.