'I felt like ET': UK man describes surreal coronavirus quarantine

Nazia Parveen North of England correspondent

When Michael Hope returned to the UK from Wuhan in China and started to feel unwell, his first thought was that he was suffering from jet lag.

Four days later, struggling to breathe and coughing continuously, he was urged to seek medical advice by his concerned family. From the moment the art teacher picked up the phone to his GP, his experience went from mundane to surreal.

The 45-year-old would end up in quarantine for 28 hours, kept in a sealed room and being tested by medics in what he described as “spaceman suits”.

“I felt like ET, to be honest,” he said. “It was totally, totally surreal.”

On Tuesday, with his symptoms having worsened after four days to “a really bad chest – coughing to the point of vomiting”, he had no greater concerns than his GP being busy: after he explained his condition, he was told there were no appointments available and to call back in the morning. The following day, when he managed to get a telephone consultation, he told his GP he had been unable to leave his home since he had got back from China – and events suddenly speeded up.

“I told them I had flu-like symptoms and that I had travelled back from Wuhan,” he said. “At first the GP told me to come to the surgery and said we could both wear masks and I could stand outside the door – but then things quickly changed and I was told to stay at home, not to leave, and I would be visited instead.”

Hope would then receive two phone calls in quick succession – one from Public Health England and another from medics at Newcastle’s infectious diseases unit in the Royal Victoria Infirmary (RVI) – telling him he should remain indoors.

“They told me that they were preparing a room for me in isolation and an ambulance would soon be at the house. They said not to be frightened of the people and that they would be wearing masks. I couldn’t quite believe it – I just thought it would be OK for me to grab a taxi with a scarf around my face,” he said.

Early evening on Wednesday, when Hope opened his front door, he was greeted by a scene straight out of a sci-fi film. Two medics, in white suits with helmets and visors, escorted him into an ambulance before attaching a nebuliser to his face. The sirens on the ambulance went on and Hope was whizzed across the city to the hospital.

“They put this nebuliser on me and I was sat in the back of this ambulance with the ‘spacemen’ – and steam coming out of my face as we zoomed through the city,” he said.

On arrival at the RVI, Hope was greeted by another medic in virus protective clothing before being taken to an air-locked isolation unit where he would meet a consultant. He would remain quarantined in the room for the next 28 hours with samples of his blood, urine and phlegm being taken.

“They would come in through one sealed door and leave through another. Every time they left they had to dispose of their clothing. It was a typical hospital room but I was in complete isolation. This guy came in with a chocolate mousse but he was in the full gear – it was so strange,” he said.

What is the virus causing illness in Wuhan?

It is a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals, or possibly seafood. New and troubling viruses usually originate in animal hosts. Ebola and flu are examples.

What other coronaviruses have there been?

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers) are both caused by coronaviruses that came from animals. Chinese authorities initially played down Sars cases, and were subsequently much criticised because the virus spread to 37 countries, causing global panic, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing more than 750. Mers appears to be less easily passed from human to human, but is more deadly, killing 35% of about 2,500 people who have been infected.

What are the symptoms of the Wuhan coronavirus?

The virus causes pneumonia. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. Antiviral drugs may be used, but usually only lessen the severity of symptoms. 

Is the virus being transmitted from one person to another?

China’s health ministry has confirmed human-to-human transmission. As of 24 January the Chinese authorities had acknowledged 830 infections and 26 deaths. Those who have died are known to have been already in poor health - but mild cases may not be reported at all.

How worried are the experts?

There are fears that the coronavirus may spread during the Chinese new year holidays at the end of January, when millions of people travel home. As a result, China has put more than 33 million people on lockdown. At the moment, it appears that people in poor health are at greatest risk, as is always the case with flu. But the authorities will be worried the virus could become more potent and will be keen to stop the spread.

Sarah Boseley Health editor

“I was worried but I just tried to stay calm and focus on the fact that it was probably just flu and not the virus,” he added.

Hope was finally discharged on Thursday night after test results showed that he was indeed suffering from flu. He has now returned home and says he is concerned about the friends he left behind in the capital of Hubei province.

“I am worried about the people in Wuhan and my friends who are still out there. They are just being told to stay in their houses and they can’t leave.”

Hope first heard about the illness when he returned to China on New Year’s Day following a Christmas break in the UK.

“My friend said to me that there had been an illness in the market and that seven people were ill but it was just a passing comment and I forgot about it,” he said.

But then as the days wore on Hope started to notice a change. “I got the sense that something was beginning to happen – the atmosphere had got stranger. My Mandarin isn’t great but I started to notice more and more people wearing masks and so I decided to book a last-minute flight and leave,” he said.

Hope packed two suitcases and got the train across to Shanghai the next day before catching his flight to Heathrow. He now realises he made a wise choice with the city of 11 million in complete lockdown.

“When I arrived in Shanghai I knew I’d made the right decision as there were just thousands and thousands of people in masks – I knew it was really bad then,” he said.

Armed police outside the closed Hankou railway station in Wuhan.
Armed police outside the closed Hankou railway station in Wuhan. Photograph: Yuan Zheng/EPA

Hope returned to the UK on Sunday and said he was not screened. He had travelled for more than 40 hours from Hubei province, where he taught at an international school, across to Shanghai before catching a flight to Heathrow and then another internal flight to his home in Newcastle.

“I didn’t get checked at all because my flight was from Shanghai but there must be lots of people like me who have come from Wuhan but travelled from different airports in China. It is really worrying,” he said.

But for now Hope is concentrating on recovering – from what is, at least, not as serious an ailment as it might have been.

“I have had a rough few days,” he added. “But the NHS seem very prepared. They have done the utmost to create a calm environment in quite an intense situation. Everyone at the hospital was amazing.”