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‘Families suffer’: Irish family held at Swedish airport over missing Covid tests

An Irish woman told The Local she has "no confidence any more in travelling" after she, her husband and their two small children were held at a Swedish airport overnight over missing Covid test results before being sent back to Ireland.

a SAS aeroplane tail and a small child sleeping on airport benches
Julia's family slept on benches in the airport overnight. Photo: Christina Olsson/TT, Private

Julia was flying from Dublin via Arlanda Airport in Stockholm on December 28th with her husband and two young children on their way to visit family in Estonia, where Julia is originally from – the same day Sweden’s travel rules changed to mandate a negative test for foreign visitors.

The family had regularly checked EU website Re-open EU – an EU-wide website updated by country authorities – for travel advice prior to the trip, and believed that they did not need negative Covid-19 tests as they were fully vaccinated, were transiting through Stockholm and were not planning on leaving the airport.

“We never even wanted to go into Stockholm, all we wanted to do was go past the border into the gate in the same terminal and leave the country,” Julia told The Local.

“My mother had helped us with checking – she is a travel agent and Re-open EU is the website travel agents use for their information. We entered the trip from Dublin to Tallinn with a transit in Sweden, and it gives you all the information with all the requirements. I went onto the website for Estonian migration and read it in detail but it never really crossed my mind [that it wouldn’t be enough] – because we were never going into Sweden – I thought this transit information published on the EU’s official website was more than sufficient.”

The section on rules for entering Sweden on the Re-open EU website stated that a negative Covid test must be provided in order to enter the country, but the transit information at the time made no mention of a test requirement, saying only that “travel or transit from another EU Member State or Schengen Associated country requires the EU Covid Certificate or an equivalent certificate”. Julia and her husband are fully vaccinated with a booster and have EU Covid Certificates from Ireland.

The transit section was not updated with the new rules for a negative test until January 5th, a week after they were introduced and shortly after The Local got in contact for comment on this story. 

It did however warn that “entry restrictions from the transit country may apply if you are processed through immigration there”. Ireland is not in Schengen – the free-movement agreement covering most of the EU and some countries outside the EU – so the family needed to go through Swedish immigration in order to enter the part of the airport their flight to Estonia was due to depart from.

Sweden, like many countries, has had an entry ban in place since March 2020, but it has changed several times since then, with new exemptions added and exemptions removed. Arrivals from some countries, including EEA countries like Ireland, are exempt from the entry ban, meaning that they are not barred from entering Sweden – but this exemption does not apply to the testing requirement.

Prior to December 28th, travellers from Ireland did not need to present a negative test to enter Sweden if they had valid EU-issued vaccine passes, with their second dose taken more than 14 days ago.

Unfortunately for Julia, Swedish travel restrictions changed on the morning of their flight, meaning that she and her husband needed negative Covid-19 tests less than 48 hours old in order to enter the country, despite the fact that they were not planning on leaving Arlanda airport – and could prove their intention to do this, as they had booked a SAS lounge in the airport for the duration of their five-hour layover.

The Swedish government had already announced on December 22nd that negative tests would be required for foreign visitors from December 28th, but when Julia and her family departed from Dublin, airline SAS accepted their vaccination certificates and checked them in for their journey to Tallinn, flying via Stockholm. The family were under the impression that all their documents were in order.

“SAS never warned us – I genuinely suspect that they didn’t know themselves that the rules had changed, perhaps the staff just came back from holiday,” Julia said. 

“I’m not sure what happened because they checked our Covid certificates and we were in full compliance of Estonian rules, you know, because we were fully vaccinated, so they checked in our luggage, they checked us in to our final destination and let us board the plane, there wasn’t a question asked about the test.”

SAS warns on its website: “It is your responsibility to check the latest Entry Requirements for your destination. (…) Please be aware that if you fail to comply with all the Entry Requirements for your trip you may be denied boarding or refused entry to your destination.” The Local contacted SAS for a comment, but had not received a response at the time of publication.

File photo of passengers at Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport in July 2021. Photo: Erik Simander/TT

Swedish citizens as well as foreign citizens resident in Sweden are currently exempt from testing requirements, but foreigners who are just visiting or transiting the country, such as Julia’s family, must show a negative test to be allowed to enter, the Swedish police website states.

After they had landed at Arlanda Airport, Swedish border police told them they could not continue their journey.

Julia and her family offered to sit at border control for the entirety of their layover and be escorted to their flight to Estonia so that border control could be sure that they did not intend to enter Sweden, but this offer was refused. The family also offered to rebook their flight to Estonia for the next day and pay for tests in Sweden which would arrive in time for their flight, an offer which was also refused.

Instead, Julia, her husband, and her three- and five-year-old children slept in the terminal overnight. Although some beds were provided, the family felt that the room where they were located posed a Covid infection risk, so they slept on benches in a less busy part of the terminal.

“We were all lumped together – there was a gate at the end of the terminal where they had set up some sort of minimalistic beds, but it was so packed with so many people I felt we couldn’t stay there as it would have exposed us to a Covid risk,” Julia continued. “It was a small room with loads of people lumped together, and nobody in Sweden seems to wear masks, which shocked me.”

Police officers took the family’s passports and boarding cards, which were returned to them when they were boarding their flight back to Ireland the next day.

“We were met by a police officer on departure and brought to the front of the queue. Somebody asked if they could come to the front with their small children as they assumed we were getting special treatment and the police officer said it was a matter for border police. It was really humiliating, we were treated like criminals being deported back, I just found the whole situation quite surreal.”

The family appealed against the decision to refuse them entry to Sweden, citing a negative test exemption for travellers with “imperative family reasons” – one of their main reasons for travelling was to visit one of Julia’s relatives who is severely ill. This appeal was rejected.

In terms of what counts as “imperative family reasons”, police told The Local that “there is no general requirement that a family member must be admitted to hospital, but the reason for the journey must be supported by relevant documents, which can, for example, be done via a doctor’s note, or a statement from palliative care or other healthcare”.

Police continued that “the decision as to whether a foreigner is covered by any exemption is always made at border control. No approvals can be issued in advance. The decision as to whether the foreigner has imperative family issues can vary somewhat depending on whether the reason is used in order to enter Sweden, or in order to avoid the negative test requirement”.

The Local also contacted Re-open EU for comment, and was told by a European Commission spokesperson that “the information published on the Re-open EU website is based on the input from the EU Member States, who agreed to provide the general public with clear, comprehensive and timely information about any restrictions to free movement. While Re-Open EU collects all relevant information in one place, travellers are always encouraged to double-check entry requirements on the official websites of national authorities.”

The spokesperson also referred to a disclaimer on the Re-open EU website which states that “European countries are responsible for the accuracy of the information on Re-open EU. If you did not find the right information on national measures, please contact the national authority.”

When asked if the EU’s rules and recommendations for travelling within the union specify anything about negative test rules and applying them to transit passengers, the spokesperson replied that:

“Fully vaccinated and recovered citizens should be exempted from travel related restrictions.

“However, based on the latest available scientific evidence and in line with the precautionary principle, to answer to the current risk from the omicron variant, the requirement of a PCR test prior to arrival can be a suitable means for Member States to consider, in particular for travel to the EU, as well as for travel within the EU, as part of an emergency brake. Such steps should be for the shortest time necessary, proportionate, non-discriminatory and subject to constant review.”

EXPLAINED:

Julia said she now feels like she has “no confidence any more in travelling”.

“I find it very difficult to advise anyone to look at any particular website – but literally any country you’re travelling through, you have to go to the local regulations and dig through the exact responsible authority yourself – but even then, it looks like they have the ability and the right to change the rules on the morning of your travel, and nobody is held responsible with the exception of yourself.”

“Our flights are void, the insurance company won’t cover them so we’ve completely lost our flights, our baggage is in limbo, and because we’re technically home, even our essentials are not being covered, because everything was packed, so now we’re finding ourselves at home and having to purchase all of this stuff. So really you have to be as careful as possible, but it’s just such an uncertain situation now that you nearly want to delay travel until a different time.”

Julia said the incident had had a huge impact on her family in Estonia. “The impact on grandparents this incident had is devastating. New Year’s Eve is big in Estonia and they had gifts wrapped for grandkids, sledges bought for them as they’ve never really seen snow and were looking forward to playing snowballs with them, bringing them sledging and building snowmen.”

“My mother in particular is still heartbroken we haven’t made it in. She somehow keeps blaming herself for also not seeing the rule change but I keep saying to her nobody would have been able to see this particular change. I think it’s important to show that families suffer because of these rules that frankly do not seem to be designed to protect anyone from Covid, but rather create a mere visibility of strict border control.”

You can read more about Sweden’s current travel rules in The Local’s article HERE, but we always advise that you consult the Swedish authorities’ latest information before travelling.

Read more on the Swedish border police’s website HERE and HERE, but be aware that those pages are usually only fully updated from the day any rule changes come into force. You can also read more about new rules and planned changes on the government’s website.

If you believe you are covered by an exemption, note that you will need to prove it, and it is ultimately up to the border officials to decide whether or not to accept your documents.

Member comments

  1. I mean…I do feel sympathetic that the trip ended like it did, but I also feel like it should be common sense to check the actual authorities directly rather than a second-hand page. That is true for any traveling but especially right now during the pandemic when we know travel requirements change rapidly. Second and third party websites are much more likely to miss publishing such changes, whereas the national authorities will do so right away.

    Like this part especially:
    “I find it very difficult to advise anyone to look at any particular website – but literally any country you’re travelling through, you have to go to the local regulations and dig through the exact responsible authority yourself – but even then, it looks like they have the ability and the right to change the rules on the morning of your travel, and nobody is held responsible with the exception of yourself.”

    Yes, of course you should go to local regulations and “dig through” the responsible authority itself. It is so easy to do, just google the country name + covid + travel and you will find a government website right away with latest current info. And no, no one is changing the rules of travel the same day. This change that went into effect on 28 December was communicated on 22 December. Had they checked the Swedish authority’s website directly everyday as they say they did with the EU one, they would have seen it the 22nd.

    Yes, it blows. But yes, it is also your personal responsibility to check the requirement of your destination and any transit countries, and to do so on the authorities’ websites and not second hand websites.

    1. To be fair, the same thing happened to me last February even though I had verbal confirmation by border police via phone that so long as I did not exit the airport during my transit in Copenhagen, I would be allowed to enter Sweden. I did as I was told but was denied entry and slept on a cot in Arlanda for two nights. The solution ended up being to fly to any other EU country and then back to be allowed entry – a lot of sense that makes. (And take a new covid test which at first was going to cost 500 euros but we were all finally offered a “group rate” of 250 euros when enough people complained.) Anyhow, my point is regardless of the research this family did or didn’t do, I know first hand that this can happen even to those who ask official authorities. Rules change too quickly, and some of the border patrol workers themselves admitted they weren’t clear on the rules day to day (which is totally understandable). However, the way in which I among many others were held in airport custody like criminals is pretty absurd. These are crazy times for travel, and it must be hard for all airline workers and border control agents as well, but I thought surely by now they had time to form better strategies than this when issues do arise. Sadly, this story makes me think it has happened the entire time since my experience.

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DRIVING

What’s it like driving from Scandinavia to the UK with a young family?

With the cost of airline tickets increasingly discouraging, is driving from Scandinavia to the UK becoming a more attractive option? The Local Denmark editor Michael Barrett gave it a try.

What’s it like driving from Scandinavia to the UK with a young family?

This summer has seen the return of large-scale international travel after a couple of Covid-hit years that have not been a picnic for anyone.

While the end of restrictions came as a relief, severe delays and disruptions at airports have added a new uncertainty around travel in 2022.

Scandinavia has not been an exception to this, with strikes at Scandinavian airline SAS and delays at Copenhagen and other airports among the problems faced by the sector.

Additionally, the increasing price of airline tickets in a time when inflation is hitting living costs across the board has become another factor discouraging air travel.

Finally, there’s the impact of air travel on climate to be considered. So is there an alternative?

The plan

Unlike colleagues who have made long distance journeys from France and Sweden respectively by rail, our plan was to make the trip from our home in Denmark to the UK by car.

There are a few reasons we picked this less climate-friendly option. I’ll readily admit they were driven (no pun intended) by our own needs, and not those of the planet. I hope we can offset this by using the train more than the car for longer journeys within Denmark, where costs are competitive.

Once we decided not to take our usual Ryanair flight, we only really considered driving. This is primarily because we have a toddler (age two), and felt that on such a long journey, the ability to control the timing and length of our stops would be crucial.

Secondly, the route would have taken longer and been more difficult logistically by rail, and would also have cost more. For example, we arrived at Harwich International Port late on a weekday evening, from where onward travel was to rural Suffolk. The thought of doing this on multiple local rail (possibly bus) services with a tired two-year-old makes me shudder a bit.

The route

From our home in central Denmark, we set out on a Monday morning and drove south on the E45 motorway, crossing the German border and continuing past Hamburg. We then got on to the A1 Autobahn and made for Bremen, where we stopped overnight.

Travelling non-stop, this journey takes just under four hours. It took us around five and a half. We stopped twice and were caught in traffic at Hamburg, where there is lot of construction going on around the city’s ring road.

Leaving early (just after 6am) the following day, we drove southwest and crossed the border into the Netherlands after a brief stop, but then managed to complete the journey to the port town Hook of Holland without a further break.

Our ferry from Hook of Holland to Harwich was due to leave at 2:15pm and check-in time was an hour before that. This was the only deadline we had on our journey that would have been problematic to miss, so we gave ourselves plenty of time for the drive from Bremen. We arrived in Hook of Holland at around 11:30am.

Next was a six-hour ferry crossing to the East Anglian coast. We booked a cabin – they are inexpensive on daytime crossings – which gave us a chance to relax after the drive and our daughter a comfortable spot for her afternoon nap.

After a queue at customs in Harwich which took around 45 minutes, we were driving through the Essex countryside just before 9pm local time. The final drive to our destination took an hour and a half.

What went right

It’s not the most relevant information for anyone considering a similar trip, but I have to mention our car. A 2003 VW Polo we bought two years ago that has never had any mechanical issues, I was nevertheless braced for possible problems given its age (and ensured I had roadside assistance for outside of Denmark, more detail on this below).

However, there was not so much as a hint of an issue of any kind at any point during the 900 kilometres it covered on the journey, nor on the way home. Respect.

Our plan to split the trip into two days paid off. I think you could do it in one day (there are also overnight ferries) if you shared the driving and needed less flexibility. I should also recognise here that we live relatively close to Germany and our destination was close to the east coast of the UK. If you were travelling, for example, from Copenhagen to Cardiff, you’d have significantly more driving to do.

For us, knowing we could take long breaks if we needed them took a lot of stress out of the journey and allowed us to adapt to our toddler’s needs – changing nappies, finding a service station playground or stopping for an ice cream.

Stopping overnight also gave us the chance to see some new places (we switched things up on the way back and stayed in Groningen in the north of the Netherlands, instead of Bremen) and gave us a feeling of being on our own little bonus holiday.

What went wrong

In all, things went as well as we possibly could have hoped for and our conclusion after we got back home was that we’d like to travel this way again.

We were stopped by traffic police in Groningen city centre because I failed to understand signs showing we were entering a public transport-only zone. The officers who stopped us then offered to escort us to our accommodation a few streets away.

The ferry, operated by Stena Lines, had far less to do on board than we’d imagined there would be on a six-hour voyage. Two tiny off-duty shops, a cinema showing a superhero film and a minuscule play area (which our daughter nevertheless enjoyed) were about the extent of it. We hadn’t downloaded any films ourselves or brought much entertainment with us from the car, so we got a bit bored during the crossing. This is hardly a serious gripe and an easy one to rectify on the return trip.

The practical stuff 

Roadside assistance is obviously crucial for a journey like this, and it’s also important to double check your insurance is valid once you leave the country in which your car is registered and insured – Denmark, in our case.

Foreign authorities can check your insurance is valid. You can document this with the International Motor Insurance or “Green” card, which serves as proof you have motor insurance when you drive outside of the EU (you don’t need it within the EU).

This means that (in theory) you can be asked to present it in the UK. We weren’t asked for it.

The Green Card can be printed via your insurance company’s website. You’ll need your MitID or NemID secure login to access the platform and print off your document. Here is an example of the relevant page on the website of insurance company Tryg. If you can’t find the right section on your insurance company’s website, contact them by phone.

A number of Danish companies specialise in roadside assistance, including Falck and SOS Dansk Autohjælp. You can also include roadside assistance as part of your motor insurance package. We have the latter option, but in either case, I’d recommend calling your provider to make sure you are covered for breakdown in the EU and non-EU countries like the UK (if that’s where you’re going). Obviously, you should add such cover to your existing deal if you don’t have it, or change to a different deal.

The company which operates the ferry from Hook of Holland to Harwich is Stena Line. Both directions have daytime and overnight departures.

There is a range of prices, and I couldn’t cover all the options here if I tried. However, I’d recommend a cabin on the daytime departures, because it’s inexpensive and gives you a bit of personal space and privacy, which is useful with children.

After calculating what our approximate fuel costs would be, the price of the hotel stays and ferry tickets, we found that the trip cost around 1,500 kroner more than we would have paid to fly from Billund Airport to London Stansted with checked-in baggage with Ryanair on the same dates. In return, we could take as much luggage as we want with us (and back), we got to see Bremen and Groningen and had our own car with us in the UK. This was more than worth the additional expense.

I also spent 50 kroner on a “DK” sticker for the tailgate of the car (because the car is so old it predates the EU number plates that include the country code) and 70 kroner for some headlight stickers which prevent full beam headlamps from dazzling oncoming drivers when you are driving on the left in the UK.

As I busily fixed them onto my car as we waited to disembark the ferry, however, a lorry driver parked next to us said these were, in fact, entirely unnecessary.

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