Despite having no side-effects and adhering to the travel restriction guidelines including passing a PCR test 48 hours earlier, Jonathan Guest, former CEO of Harland and Wolff, was subjected to a business trip he’ll never forget.
Senior director at Pattern Energy, a US based renewable energy developer, Jonathan revealed that despite best planning and endeavours, he fell foul of Covid-19 travel restrictions on a recent business trip to Japan.
Writing his experience during his seven days in isolation, Jonathan explained: “‘Right, that’s the visit sorted, let’s get the flights booked’, was for my whole business career, the mantra that generally meant another meeting, flight and overnight hotel stay in a far-flung corner of the world, culminating in over 90 international flights in one calendar year.
“That was business as usual, until the Covid-19 pandemic hit during my last round-the-world trip, visiting Tokyo and San Diego. Little did I imagine when dragging myself out of the taxi home from Belfast City Airport that I wouldn’t effectively leave the house for work, for another two years.
“Many businesspeople with an international remit like myself have found lockdown difficult, not least, the challenges of working from home. Whilst the various online video conferencing platforms have softened the blow of not meeting in person, there are simply some tasks that cannot be completed online, especially in the engineering and construction space.
“I am assisting my colleagues in Green Power Investments in Japan with technical and commercial support, on the building of the first commercial scale windfarm in the Sea of Japan, at Ishikari Bay, Hokkaido.
“Working during lockdown from my home in Belfast meant lots of early morning and late evening calls to manage the time differences between Tokyo, Belfast and, the parent company’s base in San Diego, so when Japan was once again open for business, I jumped at the chance to get my trip booked, renew old friendships and meet new personnel on the project, along with the opportunity to see construction underway.
“Whilst most countries are opening to non-residents, it’s important to understand the specific criteria for qualifying business travel. In the case of Japan, it meant an invitation letter, and further supporting documentation from my sponsoring company, along with a detailed visa application and two visits to the Japanese Embassy in London, to apply for and then collect my Visa.
“Travel was always a doddle for me. Throw some stuff in a bag and don’t forget the business cards – it’s said that turning up to a meeting in Japan without one is like turning up naked! Make sure you grab your passport, wallet, and phone, and you’re away. So, why did this time feel different? “The complexity of different entry requirements, the myriad of paperwork, ensuring vaccine passports were uploaded onto the various Apps and PCR tests added to anxiety levels for this trip.
“Finally on my way! Belfast to Heathrow; done. Transfer to T3; complete. Quick shop and a few drinks to help with the jetlag: check! Climb onboard a Japan Airlines plane; relax and off I go. It wasn’t long into the flight that I discovered another geopolitical influence on business travel, as the Ukrainian conflict now leads to a detour to the South of Russia, meaning an almost 14 hour flight time and by disembarkation, I was already starting to feel a little fatigued.
“No matter, just immigration to clear and I’d be on my way, or so I thought. I was greeted by a maze of lines, tables and hundreds of well-meaning Japanese people directing passengers through the tensa-barrier obstacle course to complete the correct medical paperwork and download the applicable tracker apps. No problem. I had the inside knowledge from my colleague who had visited the week before, so a quick test carried out, all documents in hand, on I trundled, receiving forms, showing QR codes until reaching the test results queue.
“A simple system, each of the tests equipped with a four-digit number and, once yours appears, go up to the counter to get your negative test result and off you go to baggage reclaim and out into the Tokyo night.
“A quick check on my watch, put forward to Japan time (eight hours ahead of home), showed that I was making excellent progress and was already planning which Downtown restaurant to visit for a late dinner.
“Then, something went wrong - very wrong. The numbers popped up on the screen but mine did not appear; then the sequences moved way past. Something is wrong, I thought… My sample has been stuck in with another batch, it will appear soon… it will, won’t it?
“My attention was drawn to another desk, where every so often a number was read out and the passenger in question was asked to attend, before being discretely whisked off behind some big screens.
“Covid positive I thought, that’s what that counter is for! After an hour, I got the call: passenger guest, please come to desk 148. “No, this can’t be happening. I passed a PCR test 48 hours earlier, I cannot have Covid-19!”
But, Jonathan had tested positive and was about the endure a seven day stay at the Covid Quarantine Hotel in Tokyo.
He continued: “Despite my polite, protestations that my sample must have been contaminated and a request to take ‘just one more test’ to try and extricate myself from the situation, I was whisked away to a government quarantine facility, a small hotel room in the outskirts of Tokyo. I was confined there for seven days being bombarded with announcements every few hours reminding me not to leave my room, apart from to pick up my meals from outside my door, and to complete yet another self-assessment App with my oxygen saturation and temperature readings, twice daily.
“I have encountered some setbacks in business travel over the years with cancellations, re-routings, and layovers in strange parts of the world, but I must admit that the confinement of the quarantine facility was a new and disconcerting one for me. I was fortunate, however, to have the support network of my company, Pattern, who through the office in Tokyo, immediately swung into action to check on my physical and mental health and delivered goodie bags containing lots of essentials, including food and snacks to make my stay more comforting.
“The seven-day quarantine passed slowly at first, but with conference calls still ongoing and friends and family keeping in contact, it seemed like no time before I was released. It was finally time to meet colleagues, old and new, and grab that meal in Downtown Tokyo. I stayed on for a further week and flew back to Belfast with thankfully little drama.
“Will this put me off travelling? No, but there will be uncertainty that even though you have followed all the protocols, there are no guarantees that everything will go smoothly, so plan for the unexpected. I fear the culture of “working from home” has resulted in a reluctance to travel and meeting with colleagues in person, which in turn is detrimental to junior members of staff who learn on the job, and enjoy the camaraderie of working on site. We must of course continue to be alert to Covid-19 and other virus outbreaks, and ensure we follow the government legislation that is set by each country to protect their people and ourselves, but if you do get the chance to travel, then go for it!”
Jonathan’s top five business travel tips for the Covid-era:
1. Ensure your company has, and you are aware of, the policies and protocols for employees travelling in the Covid-era.
2. Check the information and advice at your destination for latest entry requirements and take the time to print and bring paper copies of everything.
3. Download Apps in advance, and populate with as much information as possible, and always carry a power-bank or charging lead as so many travel documents are now stored on phones.
4. Where possible, have contact details of someone in country who can speak the language and assist should difficulties arise.
5. Be courteous and kind to those who have difficult jobs to do; you will see the benefit.