Photo by

Going nowhere

Covid-19 travel laws “may change with little warning”, so why plan ahead?

Artillery Row

I’ve got a buddy who used to write guide books for a living Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, all that stuff. As a result, he has been everywhere. Name somewhere in the world, and I can (almost) guarantee he’s been there. For twenty-five years or more he has steadfastly maintained that, out of all the places he’s been to, New Orleans was the best. 

Life being what it is, I’d never got round to going, though I’d always meant to. Then, a few months back, I was invited to speak at a conference there. Whoopee! You can imagine how delighted I was to accept.

This is why global supply chains are up the swanny

I don’t think I am alone in this, but Covid-19 has turned me into Mr Lastminutedotcom. What’s the point of making plans in advance, if the goalposts are only going to get shifted on you? You’re better off doing things at short notice, so as to leave less scope for disruption. I rather think this same mentality is why global supply chains are so completely up the swanny. I also don’t think my approach is so cavalier or irresponsible. The government’s own literature states that travel laws “may change with little warning”. In that case, why plan ahead?

Anyway, I was hoping the US borders would open up to UK visitors “with little warning”. No such luck.

Though the US has said it is opening itself to foreign visitors from early November, my speech falls on the wrong side of the threshold. Currently, “It is not possible for most British nationals to enter the USA if they have been in the UK … within the previous 14 days.” 

I didn’t have the time to do what some fellow Brits I know have been doing, which is to go to Mexico and spend two weeks there before crossing the border. (I probably should have made the time, but that’s another story. Who doesn’t want to go to Central America for a fortnight?)

My employer in New Orleans thought that I might be able to attend if I got a Business Visa. 

“If you are traveling to the United States in connection with a speaking engagement you may be eligible for a B-1 visa,” says the US Embassy website. So I began the process of applying for one of those.

These are not the things that subversives declare upfront

I’ve found with most things in life that when a body is competing for your custom, it will try to make your experience with them as good as possible. Where their service falls short, they will try to improve it. This applies to everything from shopping and hospitality to entertainment and IT. Where there is no competition for your custom, especially when the state is sole provider, no such dynamic exists and so the user-experience tends to be less pleasurable. Compare getting an appointment with a GP, to getting a table at a restaurant. 

This dynamic was especially at play with the US Embassy website. Ninety minutes, it advised me to put aside for filing my application. Who has got ninety minutes to fill in a form? I’m a busy and important man.

There was all the usual guff such as whether my intention in visiting the United States was to overthrow the government or commit acts of terrorism. My experience, admittedly limited, is that these are not the kind of things that subversives declare upfront.

There were all sorts of other questions. It wanted to know where I went to university and what I read. For a five-day business visa? That was thirty years ago. Nevertheless it wanted to know the date I left. It wanted to know the date I got divorced. HTF am I supposed to remember that?

It wanted to know all my social media profiles my Linkedin page, my Twitter and Facebook handles, my Youtube address. I found that rather worrying, I must say, a big step in the Orwellian direction of China’s social credit scores. Next step I guess is that they’ll want to know who your followers are as well.

It’s enough to make you an anarchist

And, time after time, it simply logged me out of the site. I would have to go through the process of again typing in my bar code number (copy and paste not an option), redeclaring that I am from the United Kingdom repeatedly having to drop to the bottom of the dropdown menu to find United Kingdom, though sometimes, mysteriously, the United Kingdom would disappear and you would have to find England. (If I ever become president of some new independent nation, I’m going to call it Aardvarkia to save my citizens time on dropdown menus.) Pages I had completed would have been lost. In fact, often the act of saving them meant I was logged out of the site and I would have to start over.

Finally, after three hours, I got to the end. Now to pay the $160 fee and book in an interview. Only then did the website inform me that the next available interview was not until 24 May 2022. In seven months time!

Why oh why could they have not told me that at the beginning of the form-filling process? They tell you it’s going to take ninety minutes; why not tell us that too? It would have saved me a morning’s work, and their website a load of bandwidth.

No wonder we hate the bureaucrats. Stupid questions. No respect for your time. And no competition from outside to force them to improve their practices. 

Who does one even complain to? Or just notify, to tell them about something that isn’t working on their site? Google would fix it in an instant. But the US or any other government? No one cares. 

It’s enough to make you an anarchist.

Meanwhile, that trip of a lifetime to New Orleans? That’ll have to wait. And all those struggling jazz musicians will lose my custom, and the custom of many others besides.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover