BMA emergency lead self-isolating after weeks stuck on cruise ship

The BMA’s emergency preparedness lead worked from the library of a cruise ship for over two weeks after the Chilean government refused to let it dock and is now self-isolating after fellow passengers tested positive for COVID-19, GPonline has learned.

A Celebrity Eclipse cruise ship (Photo: Rafa Rivas/AFP/Getty Images)
A Celebrity Eclipse cruise ship (Photo: Rafa Rivas/AFP/Getty Images)

Dr Peter Holden, who is leading BMA work on the coronavirus outbreak and is part of the NHS Emergency Preparedness, Resilience and Response (EPRR) team, was scheduled to return to work in mid-March following a cruise around South America.

But his plans were thrown into the wind when the Celebrity Eclipse cruise liner he was on was refused entry into Chile because of coronavirus fears - and forced to dock in San Diego, USA 15 days later.

This left the Derbyshire GP working remotely from the cruise ship - attending top government and BMA meetings from his cabin; something he has described as ‘extremely surreal’.

Dr Holden has now been forced to isolate at home for 14 days after four people onboard the ship tested positive for COVID-19 during secondary tests.

The BMA emergency preparedness lead hit out at the lack of coronavirus testing for healthcare workers in the UK and is calling for a separate testing pathway to get them back to work as soon as possible.

COVID-19 conference

The two-week cruise had set off from Buenos Aires, Argentina on 1 March and was due to return San Antonio, Chile on 15 March.

However, the cruise liner containing around 3,000 people was left circling off the coast of the Chilean city after the government there refused to let the ship dock amid coronavirus fears. This was despite the ship being declared clean, with no one onboard reported sick.

'We think that what happened here was that we were caught up in what you might call internal Chilean politics,' Dr Holden said. 'The president needed to be seen to be working tough and basically said no cruise liners [could dock]. The American government involved their foreign affairs people and contacted the president of Chile directly, but he wasn't having it,' he added.

Eventually a deal was agreed to let the cruise liner refuel and take on extra food in Valparaiso, Chile where the country’s navy is based. Having taken on extra supplies, the ship set off for its final destination San Diego on 20 March - 5,300 nautical miles away.

During this time, Dr Holden returned to work using the ship’s library as a temporary office and working on a laptop he had taken with him as a precaution.

NHS guidance

‘People were sending me documents and I was able to comment on them. I created some of the documents for papers that are yet to be published [and was able to] critique stuff, both for the DHSC and the BMA while onboard.

‘There is a weekly round of eight or nine teleconferences - generally they are around one to one and a half hours - and I missed only two; that was because I couldn't get a signal. So I was able to do, basically, a full back office job. It was extremely surreal.'

The ship arrived in San Diego on 30 March - ending its voyage over two weeks late - where passengers and staff were assessed. Three crew members and one passenger were pulled aside for secondary reassessment after people's temperatures were taken.

Dr Holden arrived home early last week to receive the news that those pulled aside for further assessment had tested positive for coronavirus.

Coronavirus testing

Although able to work from home, Dr Holden said he had been left frustrated with the lack of access to testing for healthcare workers and the slow turnaround time for those who are tested.

‘The problem we've got is that the figures are anything between a tenth and a third of the workforce are not at work… If you could do the test that says, they’ve had it, they’ve got antibodies, or they’ve not got them, they could go back to work earlier.

‘I know there are all sorts of issues about quality assurance, and I have to say a bad test is worse than no test at all. But what we need more than anything else is two tests. A test to get people back to work and a test to see what the true prevalence of this is in the community.’

A recent BMA poll found that more than 40% of GPs said their practice workforce has been significantly reduced because of staff self-isolating during the coronavirus pandemic - with most unable to access testing.

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