Flying across the world in a day and getting off the plane in another country always feels a bit surreal to me.

But it has never felt stranger than on a recent trip from Western Australia back to my birth country of Scotland.

I flew out of Perth Airport in July, my paperwork rigorously checked by Australian Border Force officials, after a torturous process of applying for a travel exemption.

Some 24 hours later, after transiting in Qatar, I strolled out of an unnervingly quiet airport in Edinburgh, without a test or even a temperature check.

This in a country where 2,490 people had already died from COVID-19.

After Scotland opened up in summer, the pandemic is now dragging on into winter.(ABC News: Claire Moodie)

There was no mandatory hotel quarantine.

There was not even any need to self-isolate, because Australia and Qatar had been included on a list of 57 exempt destinations.

The nagging voice in my head

Legally, I could head straight to my parents’ house in Glasgow, where my father was nearing the end of a long battle with cancer.

I could settle myself into my old upstairs bedroom, which mum would doubtless have fluffed with fresh flowers, and begin the job I’d come here to do.

But that’s when I decided to listen to the nagging voice in my head.

Glasgow’s normally busy streets were quiet in July, with much of the city still closed down.(ABC News: Claire Moodie)

“I know it’s unlikely… but could I possibly have picked up COVID-19 during the journey?” the voice said.

“And, instead of looking after my elderly parents, inadvertently pass the virus onto them?”

It was the first of many times in the next four months that I had to listen to my own in-built alarm system.

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From the height of the Scottish summer until the leaves turned red and gold, I watched a second wave of the virus take hold.

As Australia heads into summer today, can we learn anything from the Scots’ experience?

Scotland’s temporary reprieve

First of all, I should say, I did not head straight to my parents’ place.

I booked an Airbnb flat in one of Glasgow’s many tenement buildings and stayed there for the first fortnight, visiting them from a distance.

They would sit in their “sun lounge” sipping tea or something stronger and I would try to explain why I was talking to them through an open door, from a garden bench.

Claire watched her parents’ street open up and then close down again within a few weeks.(Supplied: Bill Lawrie)

After about a week, I had a sore throat and tried to get a COVID test, explaining to the health official that I had flown in from overseas to look after my elderly parents.

The polite response was that only people with a continuous cough and/or fever could be tested, and I didn’t qualify.

At this point, Scotland, like the rest of the United Kingdom, was experiencing a reprieve from the virus after a long, national lockdown. Scotland was averaging fewer than 15 cases a week.

But the infection had torn through over a third of its elderly care homes. People were reeling from the tragedy of it all and the impact of the restrictions in Glasgow was obvious.

Messages adorned tenement building windows as Scotland headed into summer.(ABC News: Claire Moodie)

It wasn’t uncommon to see a queue of anxious-looking people waiting to get into the limited shops that were open, albeit with strict social distancing rules.

Restaurants and pubs were closed, some of them for good. Rubbish bins were overflowing. Blue, disposable face masks lay stamped into sodden pavements.

During the months in Glasgow, masks became very much part of living with the disease.

They ended up stuffed in every pocket of every jacket. Crumpled up at the bottom of your handbag. Reusable patterned ones hung from the washing line.

‘People smiled with their eyes’

It sounds grim, but the Scots are generally stoic. Glaswegians, in particular, are known for their friendliness.

Coming off the train one day, a fellow passenger must have noticed my worried expression.

“You orright hen? It’s a strange wurr-old innit,” he said.

Random acts of kindness were common on the streets of Glasgow as the city started to open up.(ABC News: Claire Moodie)

Another cheerful guy outside a shop said: “Need a mask, pal? I’ve got wan I can gee ya.”

People smiled with their eyes, the birdsong of their Glaswegian accents brightening up some difficult days as I helped my family care for my dad in his last weeks.

Random acts of kindness were common. Tartan facemasks raised money for the homeless on the streets. People stuck messages of support for frontline National Health Service staff in their tenement windows.

Soon my street opened up, bit by bit, as the restrictions were lifted.

The sun came out and families headed en masse to the city’s wonderful parks.

Families flocked to Glasgow’s parks at the height of summer when restrictions were eased.(ABC News: Claire Moodie)

There was almost a festival atmosphere. It felt like utopia. People were on a high.

Pubs and restaurants were allowed to re-open under strict conditions. Many of them reinvented themselves, setting up alfresco areas on the pavements and installing see-through barriers between tables indoors.

Customers tentatively wandered back, cautiously at first. Then, in August, the floodgates opened.

The second wave hits

This time, the message was loud and clear.

Diners filled pubs and restaurants in August when the Eat Out to Help Out scheme was launched.(Unsplash: Nick Fewings)

The ‘Eat out to Help Out’ campaign was launched across the United Kingdom, offering government-subsidised half-price meals from Mondays to Wednesdays.

Glaswegians — who generally love to socialise — fully embraced the opportunity.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the BBC the scheme helped to protect about two million jobs in hospitality.

But research from the University of Warwick found it could also have been responsible for up to one-sixth of new COVID-19 clusters during August and early September across the UK.

By the end of my trip, the pubs and restaurants that were crowded only a month before were closing their doors again.

Pubs in Glasgow were only open for a few weeks and then had to close down again.(Supplied: Bill Lawrie)

Now, west and central Scotland are in lockdown again, with daily cases back up in the high hundreds.

The total number of deaths has risen to 3,720, in a country with a population the size of Melbourne.

‘What could we have done differently?’

Eirinn McNaught, a hairdresser with her own salon in Glasgow’s south, was among many who were generally confused about the rules.

“Everybody loved that Eat Out to Help Out, but was it really good for the virus? Probably no,” she said.

“One minute we’ve got to go out, the next minute we’ve to stay in. You just don’t know what to believe.”

Glasgow hairdresser Eirinn McNaught says she has been confused by the rules around COVID-19.(Supplied: Eirinn McNaught)

With her young client base, the 23-year-old pays the price when hospitality venues are closed.

“When the pubs and restaurants are closed, my clients are like, ‘I’m not going to bother getting my hair done now because there’s nothing open anyway,'” she said.

“It’s just a pure, vicious cycle.”

Ms McNaught wonders why the UK did not close down earlier in the pandemic and questions why people, until very recently, have been able to travel overseas.

LIVE UPDATES: Read our blog for the latest news on the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Obviously, you were asked in Australia, ‘Why are you travelling, why do you need to leave here?'” she said.

“But if I want to go to Tenerife, I can go to Tenerife. In the middle of a pandemic. I don’t get it.

“[Coronavirus] has been on the news since the beginning of the year. So wouldn’t we have been smart to have locked down then?

“It just makes you feel sad because you think, what could we have done differently?”

Rules not followed

The Scottish Government has been highly proactive in its messaging around COVID-19, but enforcement of some of the rules seemed to be lacking.

Public transport was a case in point.

Masks have been mandatory on public transport in Scotland for most of this year.(ABC News: Claire Moodie)

Facemasks are mandatory on trains and buses in Scotland, yet passengers could regularly be seen not wearing them.

You would often find yourself sitting too close for comfort to a maskless passenger bellowing into their smart phone.

Those who were exempt from wearing masks did not have to prove their exemption with a card or badge.

It felt like you put yourself at risk every time you travelled.

It was the same in shops. Not once did I hear anyone questioned about why they were not wearing a mask.

Learning from Scotland’s mistakes

Linda Bauld, a professor of public health at Edinburgh University, said lessons could be learnt from Scotland’s experience and those of most other European countries as they opened up society again.

The pandemic has had having a huge impact on Scotland’s elderly population, who have been isolated at home for much of it.(ABC News: Claire Moodie)

“Although we opened up in phases, this may have been done too enthusiastically and without a very robust contract tracing system in place,” she said.

“It it is very difficult to open up the economy if the virus is still present.

“And once you do, it will spread quickly.

“Countries that have pursued an elimination strategy have fared far better.”

Professor Bauld said like the rest of the UK, testing infrastructure in Scotland had been developed too slowly, care homes had not been protected well enough in the first wave and the continuation of international travel — albeit at a much reduced level — had brought imported cases into the country.

Guarding against complacency

Now, back in Perth, writing this from hotel quarantine, it is hard not to worry about my old home country as winter sets in.

Since Claire left Scotland a fortnight ago, much of the country has been placed back under near-lockdown restrictions.(Supplied: Bill Lawrie)

It’s one thing queuing outside a shop for food in the summer but another thing in the driving rain and freezing cold.

Glasgow’s pubs and restaurants are normally packed during the winter months, because socialising outside just isn’t an option.

It’s just as well Scots have a good sense of humour.

They will need it in the weeks to come.

As a returned traveller to Australia, my advice is to be grateful for the sunshine and not drop our guard. Complacency, as many in Scotland would argue, is the enemy.

I have packed my facemasks just in case.

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