Repatriation: An Unpopular Story 

The pages of the humble Manx history book have never seen such times. 

And once this particular chapter that is our present day is finally read, words such as ‘exceptional’ and ‘unprecedented’ may well have lost all meaning. 

Whomever the author, they will tell of an age where ‘social distancing’ and ‘self isolation’ weren’t concepts plucked from a lost novel of George Orwell, but were in fact a way of life and a new normal for an Island gripped, like all nations, by a pandemic. 

Some may write of a police state and its flouters of the law, others may write of community spirit, when the public stood in solidarity with its frontline workers and applauded in the doorways of their houses every Thursday night. 

Others may simply say that there was no wealth to be had in money, and family was the only currency needed to buy your way out. 

But all of course, will honour the dead taken by a foe we so desperately wanted to escape. 

A date that made Covid-19 our very stark reality and not just a name uttered by a faraway newsreader, was the 27th March 2020. 

‘Our primary objective has been and will continue to be, the preservation of life’ announced Chief Minister Howard Quayle, before declaring the full closure of the Island’s borders to all inbound passengers. 

Never before had a Chief Minister taken such a step, to lock out what would soon become over 400 of his own citizens. 

Fast forward three weeks, on to Wednesday 15th April 2020, to an Island in the thick of a lockdown where the virus tragically claimed the lives of four of its own and where the cases topped 250. 

A community still in mourning but given a reason to rejoice, as 29 of those stranded, some parents, some sons and daughters, some next door neighbours arrived safely by a boat, aptly named Mannanan. 

It was a date that marked the beginning of what would be the largest repatriation of its kind for the Isle of Man. 

However leading up to this point proved divisive, unpopular and not without its controversy. 

The lock out was a decision made for the greater good, with Islander’s told it would protect the NHS and therefore ultimately, the most vulnerable in the community. 

An indisputable sentiment, though did the move have to come at the expense of those left abroad? 

“We are living in a national emergency” decried Mr Quayle to Tynwald “not some little joy ride where we have made some minor decision to do this on a whim. 

“This has been a horrendously tough decision to make, but it is made at the advice of our medics, who we must respect.” 

The Chief Minister was attacked for a possible breach of human rights, being seen as denying Manx residents ‘the right to return’, a principle of international law. 

For those abroad, some felt stateless and abandoned as correspondence from the Cabinet Office told them bluntly ‘the Isle of Man Government is not offering any assistance at this time.’ 

Mr Quayle, incensed at those who questioned the move, asked his critics then if they wanted to be the ones responsible for the bodies piling up because they ignored the medical advice. 

Avid viewers of the daily media briefings found the Chief Minister increasingly endearing, though perhaps he didn’t anticipate the effect his inflammatory rhetoric would have for an Island said to be putting into practice a mantra of kindness, an Island which was clapping for its carers, an Island united against an invisible enemy. 

Quickly, radio call ins and the online community became rife with vitriol that mocked and scorned those stuck abroad, a group of people one MHK described as the Island’s ‘most vulnerable who were in their greatest hour of need.’ 

Their story was unpopular. 

So much so that when approached by the media to speak of their experience being stranded, they declined through fear of further hurt and derision. 

While those who did speak, said they were either staying put to wait it out, or were coming home regardless of a lack of sympathy. 

For those on Island, they were of course scared and with the government’s message of protectionism, attitudes began to show little in the way of kindness. 

While the threat of coronavirus was recognised as a humanitarian crisis the world over, the response to the plight of Manx people caught up in foreign lands was reminiscent of a debate around a resettlement programme not long ago. 

When pressed for an apology over the language that ensued and perhaps given a chance to rally support around those facing an unknown future away from home, the Health Minister David Ashford branded both sides as the name-callers. 

He himself later went on to reveal the prospective repatriates would be responsible for an Italy-style trajectory on the Island, if left ‘unmanaged.’ 

Although 2000 or so were able to get back within the 48 hour window as advised, those locked out weren’t factored into Public Health modelling, should they be reintroduced to the community. 

What became clear then, was the inconvenience these few hundred residents posed to the Manx government. 

Under pressure though to find a solution, the Council of Ministers seemingly consulted with its medics about a possible repatriation plan, five days after the border closure. This was while maintaining the claim it had a strategy for return since day one. 

Shortly after plans were afoot to bring them home on the ferry, it came caveated with a warning from Mr Ashford, who reiterated they would be responsible for an additional 100 cases on top of what was expected. 

The Island’s trajectory as mapped by the Department of Health and Social Care was fixed, veering from that path he said, risked a compromise or ‘a double-bounce effect’. 

Here for the first time, the government in its war-like footing against the elusive coronavirus, a battle of so many unknowns fought at political light-speed, was finally armed with some foresight. 

It meant the Minister could say with near-certainty that the repatriates would cripple the Island’s health service, should their return lack medical control. 

The first phase of returning residents was of course medically vetted prior to boarding at Heysham port. 

Those deemed unwell and indeed symptomatic, were denied travel to the Island and were expected to find accommodation in the UK unassisted. 

For those then assumed Covid-negative, they were subject to 14 days of quarantine at the four-star COMIS Golf Resort and Hotel under the watch of 24 hour security. 

Meanwhile in the community, those Covid-positive with mild symptoms continued to be trusted to self-isolate at home, without monitoring. 

Compassion was at the heart of the repatriation plan according to the government, who ordered those wishing to come to pay a maximum of £1000 to cover their travel and accommodation costs. 

While snacks, laundry and toiletries were to come at an extra expense. 

A petition has since been launched by a band of Manx people left locked out in the UK and further afield, and to them, the conditions of repatriation are a disproportionate and expensive prison sentence. 

Meanwhile, it was said those caught in breach of the Island’s lock down laws would face a £10,000 fine, however at the time of writing, no financial penalties have been issued. 

Though, one man with symptoms of the virus who ignored mandatory isolation, was sent to prison for 6 weeks. 

“I think people need to be realistic.” said Dr Alex Allinson at the most recent media briefing. 

“We need to bring these people home, but we need to do it in a safe way both for them and the rest of the population.” 

He explained quarantine was the right to place to put the newly returned residents as ‘we don’t know their risk. We don’t know how much of the virus they’re carrying with them.’ 

The repatriation policy will be kept under review despite being what he describes as both ‘compassionate and humane’. 

But for the 29 Manx men and women who’ve now checked in to quarantine, after managing patiently in a Liverpool AirBnB, who’ve escaped one lock down to be caught in another, who were put up in tents under the care of Count Monbatten’s Own Legion of Frontiersmen, this page of history will remember your endeavours that eventually got you to the safest place you knew, home.

5 thoughts on “Repatriation: An Unpopular Story ”

  1. Good assessment of the situation, as far as I am aware not one of the returnees has disputed the lock down or the need for quarantine, only the manner in which it was handled, the poor communication and the inflammatory language used at times, which has led to some extremely nasty comments from people about the returnees.Thank you.

  2. Thanks for writing the OP.Found the repatriation forms a few days ago. Found the rules the laws they have for the repatriation. 6 months residency is required. You have to have been in your house within 6 months of the date you intend to return. A person who left the IOM on the 1st of Nov 2019 is now outside of the 6 months residency requirement."Do not fill in the forms until you are ready to travel" you are in an isolated place it takes 2 days to get to the international airport another day to get to LHR and from there to Heysham.You need 2 letters and a medical cert to get to the international airport, the med cert is valid for 48 hrs and one of the letters for 24 hrs. You need the medical cert to get on the plane.If you get to LHR you then need to get to Heysham you could be stopped along the way and if you don’t have proof of where you live you could be imprisoned. If you show signs of an infection you’ll be isolated.English police stop drivers and others arrest people sunbathing.MANX police imprison and take to court a person who did not have a place to live.In several weeks I’ll have been out of the IOM for more than 6 months. What happens then?What happens to the people who have been out for the 6 months?No plane rides to the international airport and no plane rides to LHR until might happen the 17th of May 2020.For me to get to the IOM could cost £3000 to £10000.If you had the money would you run the gauntlet of being stopped en route?

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