An Eden couple have returned home after flying out to visit family in Taiwan and ending up being stranded there for nearly five months as COVID-19 spread across the world.
Philip and Janet Bowden, of Great Salkeld, jetted out to Taiwan on 28th February intending to stay for seven weeks. However, as the pandemic hit crisis point flights back to the UK were grounded and they were forced to stay in Taiwan until 17th July.
Having managed to get a direct flight back to Heathrow they have recently finished a self-imposed two week quarantine period to ensure the safety of neighbours around them in Great Salkeld.
Philip and Janet, who moved to the village in 2012 following teaching careers in the North East, flew out to visit their son Matthew who lives in Taiwan with his wife Shuangi and their three-year-old son Oliver.
They planned the visit to start at the end of February as Shuangi was pregnant with a due date at the beginning of March.
While Philip and Janet were in Taiwan she gave birth to their first granddaughter, Eleanor, on 6th March and Philip said being able to spend so long with their grandchildren was the “silver lining” of the situation.
They had planned to stay with Matthew and family for around one month before flying to Jakarta where their younger son, Christopher, lives with his family.
Sadly due to the COVID outbreak they were moved by Christopher’s employers to Hong Kong and Philip and Janet have had to fly home without being able to see them.
Philip, aged 65, said when they set off on their visit in February there were concerns about the COVID-19 virus but they had “no idea it was developing the way it was”.
He described how on landing in Taiwan the authorities had reacted early to the emerging situation having set up a pandemic planning cell after they were badly hit by the SARS outbreak in 2003.
With a population of 23,500 million people in Taiwan and being so close to China where the first COVID cases were confirmed, they had got information on the virus and responded quickly.
A number of schools had been closed in Taiwan in January and by the time Philip and Janet left the country there had been only seven deaths over 450 days which he said was thanks to the contact tracing they implemented and management of anyone with symptoms.
Early on in their holiday Janet, aged 62, received worrying news that her elderly mother had been taken into hospital in Wigan.
Within a month she was moved to a rehabilitation centre and then home — at which point they decided they must get back to the UK but found all international flights out of Taiwan were grounded.
Stuck in Taiwan they were relieved when the government automatically doubled all visitor visas from 90 days to 180 days, and settled in to living in the city.
“Taiwan wasn’t shut down in the same way the UK was so we could go into shops — we had to wear a mask and have temperature checks and leave name and contact number — but other than that movement was quite free.”
Philip hired a road bike and was regularly out cycling, the couple also did some swimming.
“We felt quite guilty reading the reports from the UK and talking to Janet’s mum that we were able to do all these things while people in the UK were stuck in their homes.”
Watching the virus hit the UK, Philip said they were concerned about what they would be returning to and his son and daughter-in-law wanted them to stay with them in Taiwan for a year.
Keeping an eye on when an air bridge could open, Philip said that having flown with Emirates the company was obliged to get them home.
The first flights they began to operate were a reduced number of flights from Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, to Hong Kong which the couple planned to book and fly onto the UK.
However Philip said by chance he found some information online from the Hong Kong government showing that on those first three flights into Hong Kong there had been 19, 11 and 13 passengers testing positive for COVID-19 when they landed.
“I looked at that with horror and decided to leave it a week but when I checked it a week later they were still double figures of positives coming in and it actually caused a surge in Hong Kong.”
They decided it was too “risky” travelling on an aircraft that could have those numbers of positive cases and also felt uncomfortable about being in transit in Dubai airport for up to eight hours on the journey back to the UK and instead decided to wait for a direct flight.
Direct flights from Taipei to Heathrow opened, operating once every two weeks, and Philip and Janet secured a place on the second route, flying back on 17th July.
Although Philip said he felt comfortable with that flight, their friends in Taiwan were so concerned that a team at their daughter-in-law’s textile firm worked overnight to produce two full PPE suits which were couriered to them.
“That was how they wanted us to fly back but we chose not to. It was over the top in some ways but out of genuine concern.”
Philip and Janet flew back into Heathrow on the 14-hour flight as part of 70 passengers on the 350 seater plane.
He said he felt comfortable with the set up at Heathrow although was surprised when forms they had to fill in to enter the UK were not checked.
“It was certainly looser than in Taipei but I didn’t feel unsafe in any way,” he added.
Having safely returned to their Great Salkeld home Philip and Janet went into isolation for 14 days to be mindful of some of their older neighbours — many of whom had helped at their home while they were away and they stayed in touch with via a Facebook group set up for villagers.
“It’s always good to be home and after 18 weeks on a sofa bed sleeping in your own bed is fantastic!” Philip said.