A far shave? Our British reporter tests the limits of coronavirus travel checks – and explores the fringe benefits of France's open salons.
Coronavirus lockdown restrictions are gradually easing in the UK, but many Britons are confused about what they can and can’t do. And some are finding wacky workarounds.
Our reporter Luke Hanrahan couldn’t get a haircut at a London salon. So he decided to try his luck by instead heading to Paris, where salons reopened on May 11. And he says getting there proved to be "a piece of cake".
"Whether I just slipped through the cracks, I don’t know. But the fact is I didn’t fill out any form and nobody asked me why I was travelling to France," he told Euronews, adding that his experience suggests there should be stricter checks.
No matter how pressing a haircut might feel after weeks of lockdown, it clearly does not qualify for “essential international travel” as requested by both French and UK authorities.
As the Consulate General of France in London makes clear: “Travel to France is permitted only when strictly necessary.”
"Anyone travelling to France from abroad is still required to show an official declaration for international travel, in paper or digital format, to transport companies, prior to boarding, and border control authorities."
The declaration can be downloaded here, as well as a list of other supporting documents that may be required to prove the purpose of the trip.
Luke admittedly skipped that part.
Yet he was able to hop onto a Eurostar train and get his locks trimmed near Paris' Gare du Nord station, and then head back to London – all within a few hours.
It's not the cheapest haircut he'll ever have but it will do the job for the coming weeks. UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told Sky News last week that salons would not be opening until July 4 "at the very earliest".
How on Earth did he get through?
Luke went out on a work assignment, to report on the ambiguity of lockdown restrictions in the UK. Trying to go to France on a Eurostar for a haircut was a "tongue-in-cheek way" of exploring how confusing the rules were, he explained.
"If someone had asked me why I was travelling I would have been duty-bound to explain it was for work, and I would have had to adjust my report accordingly. But nobody asked me," he says.
At Saint Pancras station in London on Saturday (May 16), his train was about to leave when people were still going through security, all the while trying to comply with social distancing measures. "Everyone was in a rush, and it was quite a frantic situation," he said.
"I was ushered through security, and a Eurostar official asked me in French if I’d filled a form. I said no. She asked why. I said I hadn’t been given a form. I can’t speak good French, she seemed flustered, and she just shrugged and ushered me through."
French police were standing by, but he said they didn’t ask him any question and he simply walked past them. At the customs gate, he showed his passport and was waived through. He insists he never had to show any other identification, form, special permission, or press card.
It was just as easy arriving in Paris Gare du Nord train station, he said: "I just walked straight off the train, no checks whatsoever, and was out in about 30 seconds."
"I know why it might be frustrating for some people if they didn’t have the same experience. But in my experience it was a piece of cake," he said.
Both the UK and France have announced quarantine rules for international travellers, but they have yet to implement them.
In the meantime, Luke says his experience suggests that checks could be more diligent. He insists he did not mean to encourage people to travel for unnecessary reasons. He wanted to make a point: "What I’m saying is that it’s wrong that people are able to do this."
"I don’t have a clue what’s going on"
Luke’s experience, however extreme, highlights some of the confusion surrounding COVID-19 movement restrictions in the UK and beyond, as governments try to gradually relax the lockdowns choking their economies.
People in England who cannot work from home are now being encouraged to return to business, but to avoid public transport. Travel restrictions have been eased, sunbathing and unlimited individual outdoor exercise are now allowed, and schools could reopen in June.
But the advice to stay at home remains in place in the rest of the UK – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – and the divide has sparked both confusion and criticism.
And leading scientific experts say a loosened lockdown has come too soon.
"It seems to be driven politically to open up businesses. And the government have kind of left businesses to make their own decisions about what people should do and should not do. The government should be more direct," said Gary McLean, a professor in molecular immunology for the School of Human Sciences at London Metropolitan University.
London hairdresser JR has no idea whether going back to work would mean breaking the rules.
"I’m raging, I’m furious. I don’t have a clue what’s going on – and I don’t think anyone has any idea," he said.
"There’s been a lack of clarity on what you should do and I feel like the government is putting the pressure on people to make up their own minds as to what they should and shouldn’t do. There have not been enough clear guidelines about what I’m allowed to do. Can I go to work?"
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has acknowledged frustration over what he described as a "complex" easing of the coronavirus lockdown, suggesting more complicated messages were needed during the next phase of the response.
"I understand people will feel frustrated with some of the new rules," Johnson wrote in an op-ed in the Mail on Sunday.
"I recognise what we are now asking is more complex than simply staying at home, but this is a complex problem and we need to trust in the good sense of the British people."
In the meantime, Britons who can't afford a trip to Paris to get their haircut will just have to be patient.
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to clarify that trips between France and the UK should strictly be limited to essential travel, and to explain how one reporter fell through the cracks of COVID-19 border checks. Please accept our apologies if we gave the impression that this was something British people could and should do.