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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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TRAVEL NEWS

EXPLAINED: What’s behind the queues at Stockholm Arlanda airport?

Travellers are reporting queues over an hour long at Stockholm's Arlanda airport. What's going on and how long is it expected to last?

EXPLAINED: What's behind the queues at Stockholm Arlanda airport?

What’s the situation at Stockholm Arlanda airport? 

On Friday morning, there were queues lasting over an hour at Arlanda’s security controls. By 10am, they had been reduced to below half an hour, according to the live update the airport operator, Swedavia, maintains on its website here

Swedavia first began warning of long queue times on Monday, saying the queues were the result of a resurgence in travel combined with staffing shortages at Avarn, the contractor responsible for managing the security checks. 

“The wait times are due to a staff shortage with our security services contractor – which is caused by ongoing recruitment and absences due to illness,” the airport said on its website

What are travellers saying? 

Twitter is predictably awash with angry comments from travellers, including some well-known commentators. 

The terrorism researcher Magnus Ranstorp resorted to capital letters to bemoan the “CATASTROPHE” at the airport. 

The Financial Times’ Nordic Correspondent also compared the situation at Arlanda unfavourably with the smooth controls at Helsinki Airport

“Never seen anything like it and sounds like might be worse today. In Terminal 5 both queues, SAS and Norwegian, were well over 100 metres long,” he told The Local. “It took me 50 minutes to get through security. Don’t think it’s ever taken more than 10 in the Nordics before.” 

What should you do if you are travelling through Stockholm Arlanda at the moment? 

Swedavia recommends that you arrive “well in advance” when taking a flight. You can contact your airline here to find out when their check-ins and baggage drops open.  

Swedavia also recommends that you do everything possible to speed up the check-in process, such as:

  • checking in from home
  • packing hand baggage to make screening faster
  • checking the need for a face covering in advance
  • checking that you have the right travel documents ready 

If you can’t check in from home, Swedavia recommends seeing if you can check in using an automated machine at the airport.

What is the airport doing to to improve the situation? 

On June 15th, the airport is reopening Terminal 4, which might help somewhat, although the airport warns that as staffing is the major problem, having more space will not fully solve the problem over the summer. 

In a press release issued on Friday, Svedavia’s chief operations officer, Peder Grunditz, said opening a new terminal was “an important measure”. 

“We are now going to have the three biggest terminals back in operation for the first time since the pandemic,” he said. 

The company and Avarn are also making “big recruitment efforts” and taking “operational measures” to improve the queue situation, although the “challenging labour market” made that difficult. 

When will waiting times return to normal? 

In his press release, Grunditz conceded that waiting times were not likely to return to normal during the summer, due to the rapid growth in the number of people taking flights. 

“Even though we expect gradual improvements, the queuing situation is going to continue to be challenging during periods over the summer,” he said. 

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