Covid-19 one year on: Quarantine starts at Arrowe Park Hospital

30 January 2021, 07:11

By Liam Gotting

A convoy of coaches, complete with police escort, was the first sight of coronavirus on the Wirral as 83 repatriated Brits prepared to enter an isolation unit at Arrowe Park Hospital.

The eyes of the UK watched with intrigue as the group arrived at RAF Brize Norton following a long flight from Wuhan. Their journey from Oxfordshire to the Wirral was followed with heightened interest as the situation in China caused alarm bells to ring around the world.

Met by a team of hazmat-wearing medics, the 83 Brits took up residence in hastily-vacated apartment blocks at the back of Arrowe Park Hospital – a place they could isolate together while under the microscope of Public Health teams.

Since then, 100,000 people have died with the virus
Since then, 100,000 people have died with the virus. Picture: PA

Since then, the UK has seen over 100,000 deaths from the virus.

Kharn Lambert, an English teacher in Wuhan, told LBC: “I think the biggest thing for us was the unknown. They didn’t tell us where we were going. All we knew was we were going to an air-base and were going to be bused to a facility.

“There were police everywhere, ambulances everywhere. It was a full convoy from RAF Brize Norton up to Arrowe Park. It felt like we were criminals, seeing all the police blocking the roads off, closing down the motorways, and in the back of my mind I was thinking, “What are all these people that are watching TV thinking, what are they thinking?” Do they know who we are?

Passengersfrom a cruise ship hit by the coronavirus in Yokohama, Japan, arrive by coach at Arrowe Park Hospital on Merseyside
Passengersfrom a cruise ship hit by the coronavirus in Yokohama, Japan, arrive by coach at Arrowe Park Hospital on Merseyside. Picture: PA

“It sounds like a movie, it is still very surreal, and sometimes does make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.”

Kharn, who is now back in Wuhan, admits the UK response has been much slower than back in China, he said:

“When we were on the plane over from Wuhan, the conversation was along the lines of ‘This will all blow over’ and we’ll be back in Wuhan in a couple of months. We definitely didn’t think we would be where we are now.

“I was worried that we were going to be targeted. When I was in the media to begin with I got so many vile messages from people on Facebook and Twitter. I was worried. I genuinely thought people would target us because they didn’t want us home. They didn’t want us to bring this deadly disease back to the UK. So for me, it was a huge worry coming back and I thought we might have been in danger.

“Once we got onto the buses it quickly became apparent we were safe. Once we got to Arrowe Park I was contacted by a lady who had set up a facebook page called “Compassionate Wirral”. The amount of messages we saw from people all around Wirral and Liverpool offering us anything we needed, from pyjamas to slippers, clothes and the amount of stuff they sent to the hospital was overwhelming.

“People did care and they wanted to help.”

Fellow evacuee, Matt Raw, admits, with hindsight, he would have stayed in Wuhan: “Once we got on that plane, I thought it’ll get a bit of news coverage when it lands but that’ll be it. Nobody will be interested. And then, I spent 6am-6pm every day bouncing around various radio shows, TV shows, it was bizarre. I wouldn’t have expected this.

“At the time I think we thought two or three months it’ll all be sorted out and we’ll go back to China.

“If I was to go back 12 months and speak to myself, I’d say ‘Don’t get on the plane you silly sod’. I really would. It’s lovely to be back here, and to see friends, but really it’s been a monumental, gigantic great big mess.

On the treatment by Arrowe Park staff, Matt said: “I just remember there was a huge, vast number of staff all standing in the entrance to this building, clapping and cheering as we walked in. I didn’t really have time to comprehend what was going on.

“The reaction of the NHS has been wonderful. Some of the staff were only given an hour’s notice we were turning up. They pulled out all the stops. There were some staff members who volunteered to stay on site for that entire two week period so we had continuity if we had any problems, trying to make us more at home.

“Words just can’t describe it. Everything they did was going the extra 1,000 miles.

“I just cannot thank them enough.”

The arrival of the 83 evacuees sparked concern amongst residents on the Wirral. Why were they being brought here?

Margaret Greenwood is the MP for Wirral West, she told LBC: “I was actually on a train and I had a call from Number 10. I had to take call immediately from Matt Hancock who told me this was happening.

“It was quite a surprise. We had all been looking at Wuhan on our TV screens and it looked quite eerie, quite frightening what was happening there.

“I was told a number of places had been looked at. One of the things was that the accommodation block was separate to the hospital, and was appropriate medical services nearby. But, also that it wasn’t in a city centre seemed to be a key factor because if you have a hospital right in the city centre, had it been something had developed from that it would have been so much more difficult to manage.”

Hospital bosses had to react quickly to the news the 83 were being brought to their facility.

Nikki Stephenson is the Deputy Medical Director at Arrowe Park and told LBC: “We had less than 24 hours’ notice to make our staff accommodation into an isolation facility for the repatriated people from Wuhan. That was a big logistical challenge for us to make it a welcoming area, and obviously in the context of a virus we knew very little about. It didn’t even have a name at that point.

“I think people at that point were quite nervous, because they didn’t really understand too much about what the virus would involve, and we spent a lot of time communicating to our staff and to reassure them they were safe.

“It was challenging, but I’m really pleased all the guests left with a clean bill of health."