As they raced along deserted motorways, stopping only for the checkpoints manned by Chinese officials in hazmat suits, Jeff Siddle feared he would never make the flight out of coronavirus-hit Wuhan with his wife and young daughter.
But, down in no small part to the generosity of a Chinese private car driver who ferried them the four hours across the locked-down Hubei region, the British family made it in the nick of time.
“We couldn’t find any car that was prepared to take us because obviously no one wanted the risk of getting the virus and they were concerned about getting back,” said Siddle, who had travelled with his wife, Sindy, and their nine-year-old daughter, Jasmine, to the village of Hongtu, a few hours outside of Wuhan, to spend the lunar new year with family.
It is not the first hurdle the family has had to overcome. The Guardian revealed last week that Sindy was originally told she would not be allowed on an evacuation flight as she held a Chinese passport.
Speaking from the UK quarantine centre, Siddle said: “We’d given up hope. I said, ‘I’m not splitting my family up so we’ll just stay’. We all unpacked our bags and resigned ourselves to be in there for the long haul, weeks or months or whatever it would be.”
Chinese authorities eventually lifted the restrictions and the family, from Prudhoe in Northumberland, were offered places on the French-chartered evacuation flight that left on Sunday. But by the time they had acquired a driver and the Foreign Office-stamped documents they needed to pass through the road checkpoints, they were running hours behind schedule.
“We thought we’d just go for it and hope they held the flight for us,” Siddle said. “So we set off and it was crazy, there was a four-lane motorway with nobody on it except a couple of police cars and us.
“Every so often there would be a full-blown checkpoint with people in full hazmat suits and they had digital temperature gauges to check everybody in the car. It looked like they were spraying the car with some chemical or something, too.
“It felt like the last chance to get out before the whole thing was totally locked down permanently.”
En route they received a call from local authorities asking them to pick up a French woman who had no way of getting to the airport. “We suddenly pulled across and screeched to a halt and she ran out from her house with her case and jumped in our car as well. Without us she would have been stuck,” he added.
They finally made it to Wuhan’s deserted airport, where staff in hazmat suits checked in their bags and passengers were asked to wear medical reports around their necks. Siddle estimates there were up to 300 people onboard, including 11 British nationals. “It was a big Airbus with two floors; the upstairs was a quarantine area with all the doctors, downstairs were all the people who didn’t have any issues,” he said.
They flew to a military base near Marseille, where a line of planes waited to transport people back to their respective countries. “It was over 40 hours from setting off from Sindy’s mum’s village to getting to Wirral, so we’re beyond tired, we’re like zombies,” said Siddle, who is now trying to raise money for face masks and medical supplies to send to rural areas of Hubei province, where resources are limited.
The family have not been allowed to interact with the 83 British nationals who travelled on the first evacuation flight on Friday, to avoid the risk of cross-contamination. It has left them confined to their apartment.
While they are relieved to be back on home soil after their ordeal, others are not so fortunate. Sindy’s family remain trapped in their village in Hubei province, unable to leave.
“Sindy felt bad about leaving them and we didn’t even have a chance to say a proper goodbye. We had to grab the cases and run to the car, so we just said bye out of the window as the car was screeching away,” Siddle said.
“We don’t know how long it will be until we can see them again.”