British tourist John Groarke was quarantined in two Austrian hotels under less than comfortable conditions – and several members of his party came down with coronavirus
It was supposed to be a chance to catch-up, take some time out and ski. Ten friends had saved for, and looked forward to, a late winter holiday in Saalbach, Austria. Among the 10, and travelling with four close friends, was John Groarke, who’s 51 and from Ilkley, West Yorkshire.
The two groups arrived, separately, on February 29. Most flew in from the UK, but one friend, part of the larger party, came via train from Italy where coronavirus was taking hold.
Their ski sojourn began smoothly. Everyone arrived on Saturday and all 10 joined up that evening. With the next morning came the first signs of trouble. Tony, who’d arrived via Italy (although not having passed through one of the regions that were initially affected), was starting to feel “a bit squiffy,” says Groarke, relaying the events to Telegraph Travel.
“On the Monday he had a high fever. We know now once you’d got that fever you’re going to test positive, basically. That’s when he went to hospital.”
By Wednesday, Tony had been tested, but the group had yet to learn the result. “We got a text from the other party saying ‘we want you back at the hotel as soon as possible’.”
The hotel wasn’t aware that Groarke’s group had been travelling with the other six, which included Tony, so probably could’ve headed home undetected. Still, they volunteered themselves to the hotel manager.
“One friends was concerned that if there was a possibility he did have it he didn’t want to go back as his wife has had heart problems in the past,” explains Groarke. Plus, he adds, they didn’t want to be responsible for spreading the virus.
Subsequently, all of the party were asked to quarantine themselves in their rooms. Later, a representative of the Austrian government knocked on the door, wearing a mask and asking each man to sign a document.
They were told it was a quarantine certificate. It was in German, but they deciphered what they could using Google translate. The signed it, effectively agreeing to stay put, and follow any advice given with regards to their isolation. “We were psychologically, if not physically, locked in the rooms.”
In the following days, three more of the 10 tested positive for the virus. Groarke didn’t have any symptoms and was initially refused a test. Those infected were sent to a local hospital, which Groarke describes as “a Victorian-type affair”. To protect other patients, they were locked in their rooms.
“They were concerned about their nutrition,” says Groarke. Food was basic, and limited. “In the evening they got just bread and a slice of ham.”
“The Austrian authorities are still learning how to deal with it. When it got to Monday morning we got a message from the hotel manager. He wasn’t getting any cover from Austrian authorities. We were still taking up three or four rooms, so he sent out an email saying, basically ‘I’m not going to feed you now, the Austrian authorities can deal with it, I’m washing my hands of it’.”
Groarke says he understands the manager’s perspective, but it was, nevertheless, a worrisome moment, particularly as the group felt they had received limited help from the British consulate.
“It got to about 12pm and we found out they were going to relocate us to (what we learned was) ‘the house from hell’,” says Groarke. The building was initially unheated, without hot water, fairly remote and didn’t have sufficient beds and bedrooms – some of the group had to share a bed, most were sharing bedrooms. “It was like eight degrees, I slept in trousers, a t-shirt, a jumper, a hoodie and my skiing jacket,” says Groarke.
Most pressing was the lack of proper isolation of those who had tested positive. Groarke was in a downstairs room, as were two others. However, upstairs, while in different rooms, there was a mix of men with and without the virus.
The upstairs and downstairs groups were supposed to stay on their floors and those with the virus to keep away from those who had not yet contracted it. This seemed insufficient, particularly when it came to food distribution.
“We were told that the Red Cross would bring the food to us, then we would separate it out.” The food was typically a bag of bread, some butter and cheese.
The downstairs group would drop some off upstairs. Using Whatsapp, they’d then arrange for those upstairs, and without the virus, to collect their portion. Next they’d give the virutal nod to those with the virus. “After a few days of that, we told the Red Cross it can’t be right, that we shouldn’t be going upstairs and possibly risking ourselves’.”
After this, a Red Cross worker took charge of the food separation, but precautions still felt flimsy. Whether contracted earlier, or during their stay in the house, two more in the group tested positive for coronavirus in the following days.
Groarke meanwhile, having twice tested negative for the virus, was working with one other member of his party to arrange travel home. “I’d preemptively booked BA flights for the return on Saturday. I couldn’t take the chance to rely on insurance as seat numbers were diminishing. Fortunately the test was negative on Friday so we were formally released with a medical certificate on Saturday at 9am.”
Since the friends had been moved to the quarantine house much had changed. The World Health Organisation had confirmed the outbreak to be a pandemic, ski resorts across Europe had closed and more and more countries were shutting their borders. This was reflected in Groarke’s journey home.
“Salzburg airport was a truly sombre and surreal experience. When we arrived, I thought it odd that the check-in hall was at capacity. About 90 per cent of people were facing the wrong way. A lot were queueing for the ticket desks first, presumably having made their own (versus package) arrangements and trying to get one of the few flights back to their respective countries.”
When he eventually landed in Manchester, relief swept over Groarke. “I even kissed the ground when I got outside; I know that sounds melodramatic and in the grand scheme of things [my experience] is not massive, but the psychological effects of the whole affair took its toll on me.”
Now Groarke is self-isolating at home. Unfortunately, some members of his party are still stuck in limbo. Matthew Hird, who was among those who tested postive and was sent to the hospital, is one. As of March 20 he was awaiting the results of another test. “This whole idea of having two negative tests before being allowed to leave means I feel like I’m never going to get out,” he told Telegraph Travel.
For Hird, too, the experience has caused strain. “I’ve not had any symptoms for about three days now. Mentally is a different matter. The stress of being moved around, locked up and told nothing has been very difficult but I’ve tried to stay positive.” As Hird’s time in Austria creeps into the third week, he hopes a second negative test will soon grant him permission to return home.