Not until the automatic doors of Eurostar arrivals opened could Sue Stevens be sure that her daughter, Laura, had made it back from Paris.
Eighteen bitterly hard months had passed since they had seen each other, while a late moment of bureaucratic confusion at the French departure point had cast some last-minute doubt.
But – as planned – just after 10.37am, they and other families were able to shed tears over their face coverings after the arrival of the first cross-Channel train since the UK government announced that fully vaccinated travellers arriving from France were exempt from self-isolation.
For those who had pined for the rekindling of the broader Anglo-French relationship – which had come under intense pressure since France was last month suddenly placed on a new “amber plus” category of quarantine restrictions – there might have been no better celebration than the day of emotional reunions at St Pancras station and other ports of entry to Britain.
“I knew she was on the train but I still couldn’t bring myself to believe that she would get through until I actually saw her,” said Sue, clutching a sheaf of lavender, which her daughter had given to her.
“I could have come back last summer but things didn’t go as planned, so it’s been a long time,” said Laura, a photographer based in Paris, as she prepared to accompany her mother home to Surrey to see the rest of the family.
“There was a last-minute thing, which surprised a few people, who had to go on their phones and make sure things were filled out, but in the end it was OK and we were allowed through. It’s just so great to be back,” she said.
Travel between France and the UK surged over the weekend after the easing of a tense diplomatic situation surrounding the additional quarantine measures for France, to which senior politicians in Paris had vociferously objected. The Guardian revealed last month there had been concern in Downing Street over France regarding the rise in cases of the Beta variant – first identified in South Africa.
It led to the country suddenly being placed under the amber plus category of quarantine restrictions, requiring all those travelling from France to isolate for up to 10 days on their arrival in England.
After a Downing Street announcement during the week, Brittany Ferries experienced a rise in demand, although it still only expects to carry a quarter of its usual number of passengers. Its chief executive echoed the comments of others in the travel industry who said the relaxation of quarantine for one of Britain’s most popular destinations came too late to save the season.
“Let’s be realistic, we would need tens of thousands of people booking to make up for the poor season,” Christophe Mathieu, the company’s chief executive, told the BBC.
Train operator Eurostar – which has slashed its schedules due to the Covid-19 pandemic – meanwhile said bookings on its London-Paris route had doubled during the week after it was confirmed that fully vaccinated arrivals from France would no longer need to self-isolate.
Sunday marked the movement of France from its own amber plus category on to the amber list, which means children and fully vaccinated passengers do not have to quarantine on their return, although unvaccinated travellers still have to self-isolate at home for 10 days.
Among those in the latter category was Oceane Daigneau Frugier, a Parisian working as a digital marketer in London, who had travelled over to France to see her 85-year-old grandfather. Her grandmother died from cancer last year.
“I was in France in the countryside to see him for a few days. Now I’m back, I’m going to have to do my quarantine because I only got a single dose,” she said.
“I wasn’t able to speed up my second dose but [my grandfather] had been able to have two doses in France, so it felt safe. I went directly to see him and quarantine in the countryside there, it really was important for us to see each other.”