Tales from the front line: closing borders on the Isle of Man

The EH team on the Isle of Man has made quarantining and contact tracing its priority.
15 April 2020 , Katie Coyne

You knew the Isle of Man government was taking the coronavirus extremely seriously when it imposed a temporary 40mph speed limit at the end of March.

Known for the TT – the Tourist Trophy annual motorcycle race event – the Crown dependency up until recently had no national speed limit across the island, which is in the Irish Sea.

It acted swiftly to close its borders on 26 March – even though this meant stranding 400 of its citizens on the mainland. Repatriation started today (15 April), with strict measures in place including quarantining in a Manx hotel.

Four people have been jailed for breaching lockdown rules, and the government there introduced testing early. Health Minister David Ashford (no relation to Chris) declaring at a briefing “our strategy is to test, test, test and trace, trace, trace and will continue to be”.

With a population of 84,000, to date it has tested 2,175 people, confirming 256 cases, and had four COVID-19 deaths.

Chris Ashford is part of an eight-strong EHP team, carrying out 12-hour shifts on first-stage contact tracing of those who have tested positive for the virus. A team of nurses are conducting the secondary stage, tracing those who have had contact with known carriers of COVID-19.

Chris worked as an EHP in England for 20 years, and said he was “quite shocked” that Public Health England abandoned contact tracing early on. But having a separate government meant Manx people could choose to go their own way and followed European and World Health Organization guidelines.

He pointed to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, which states contact tracing is an “essential measure” to fight COVID-19, in conjunction with active case finding and testing, alongside other measures such as physical distancing.

He said: “Every person that you speak to that was thinking of going out, and you’ve convinced them not to, that stops the secondary spread of infection. It is resource intensive but you are investing really in trying to cut down on something that can affect a person’s health very badly or even kill them.

“The more we can do earlier on that has a knock-on effect on the number of cases we have to deal with later.”

Last week the Manx health minister announced contact tracing had helped identify around 200 people who needed to self-isolate, helping to prevent spread of the virus.

Chris is calling people who have tested positive every day checking on them, asking how they are, keeping track of symptoms, and reminding them to self-isolate. His team is hoping that this data will eventually help it to map any hotspots and perhaps provide information on how the virus spreads, but it’s also about the here and now.

“It can also be reassuring for people,” he said. “I spoke to the manager of a local care home where one of the residents tested positive – they had only mild symptoms and didn’t expect to test positive.

“She was really panicking about the impact this would have on the residents under her care, and also on her daughter who was pregnant. It’s about giving advice and helping all these people doing important jobs that can’t just abandon their posts.”

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