Sky News producer Nick Stylianou says it was “brief but unpleasant” – like “someone taking a straw to where your tonsils are”.
By Nick Stylianou, senior producer
By the time I got back on Valentine’s Day from a 30th birthday surprise trip to Bologna, I felt like I had a bad cold, writes Sky News producer Nick Stylianou.
I have been producing some of our coronavirus outbreak coverage and I knew that – at the time – Europe’s most serious cases were limited to a handful in France.
Five days after I got back I felt considerably sicker. But I struggled through the tiredness at work and spent a weekend sleeping off the heavy feeling on my chest.
Monday morning brought the tale of Italy’s “red zone”, a temperature that wouldn’t go away and, as I spoke to our European teams and checked the latest figures, I found the region I’d been travelling in – Emilia-Romagna – had almost 20 new cases.
Public Health England and NHS 111 did not feel I needed to be concerned – Italy was not yet on their list of “high-risk” countries. Our corporate advice, however, was clear. I immediately drove myself home to await a call-back from a 111 clinician.
It took 11 hours until I could speak to a nurse who did not sound much healthier than I did. She apologised for the delay but said the advice had not changed. Northern Italy was not yet high-risk. Advice was to be updated at 2pm the next day. Paracetamol and bed.
At 8am on Tuesday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock was on Kay Burley’s breakfast programme to announce new advice for those who have travelled to northern Italy. Returning from the 11 quarantined towns after 19 February meant immediate self-isolation and testing.
Anyone returning from anywhere north of Pisa after 19 February and showing cold and flu-like symptoms should self-isolate for 14 days and call 111 to be tested.
My symptoms did not arrive until 18 February, so I rang 111 and had to explain what had just been said on Sky News by the health secretary and asked for their clarification. Their systems had not reflected this latest advice, so I had to wait for another call back.
Four hours later, I spoke to someone in the COVID-19 team in London: I was to strictly self-isolate and needed to be “swabbed”. They had been inundated with calls.
Luckily, there was a community health team that could visit me, but they were so busy that I would have to wait another two days for them to be available. In other areas, people have had to make their own way to community hospitals.
On Thursday lunchtime I was called and instructed to open my front door and walk into another room while the nurse was put into a hazmat protective suit by another medic outside.
Some people have had swabs taken of both their nose and throat, but I only had the back of my throat scraped. It was brief, but unpleasant. Imagine someone taking a straw to where your tonsils are.
I asked if the team was busy. “You have no idea – we’ve seen half of London,” I was told.
People returning from ski trips, no doubt? “Oh, we’ve had all sorts. Holidays to Thailand and Malaysia seem to have been very popular lately.”
I was left with a three-page printout catchily-titled “Action Card 11 v1.0 Advice for individuals under home care and isolation” containing all expected hygiene advice in detail.
The results of my swab could take “up to three days”, so I was in for another agonising wait, counting the walls and wondering what food I had left or how I’d negotiate a takeaway delivery
I had a few masks left from covering the bushfires in Australia at the start of the year so I left one for each of my two housemates as realistically nothing more than a cosmetic symbol at this point.
Friday was 14 days since I returned to the UK and should have been the end of a belated self-isolation, but I was still waiting.
Sunday evening brought the all-clear. Six days spent in my bedroom wondering how many people I would have infected if I had the virus. The train to and from Modena, the plane home, my birthday party, the pub, the Tube, my mum, the school she works in, the cinema, the newsroom.
And an even more worrying thought: if someone nearby in the UK tests positive, I might have to go through this all over again.