NHS staff stuck in South Africa plead for help to get home and join virus fight

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Catriona Walker and Holly Watts say they feel their skills are being wasted.

Catriona Walker and Holly Watts

Two British health workers stuck in South Africa are appealing for help getting back to the UK so they can join the NHS battle against coronavirus.

Catriona Walker, from Manchester, and Holly Watts, from Nottingham, were enjoying an extended break in the country, having travelled out in mid-January, but are desperately trying to get home so they can join the frontline effort battling Covid-19.

Catriona Walker
Catriona Walker is trained to work in anaesthetics and intensive care (Catriona Walker/PA)

Ms Walker, 31, told the PA news agency: “We’re trying to get back as soon as possible. We both feel like we need to start working, we feel bad that we’re not there working through the pandemic.”

With their original flight home scheduled for April 14, they organised an earlier flight once it became clear that South Africa was heading for a lockdown.

When that was cancelled, they booked a flight for the end of the initial lockdown period but that too was scrapped, meaning they had each spent around £1,200 on cancelled flights.

They now say have spent a further £660 apiece on flights organised by the British High Commission in Pretoria, and are on a waiting list for a series of three flights from Johannesburg over the next few days.

Ms Walker and Ms Watts, who are staying in Mtunzini, near Durban, face a drive of around seven hours to get to Johannesburg and, having heard reports of strict road blocks, are concerned about whether they will be able to make it to the airport safely.


Catriona Walker and Holly Watts
Catriona Walker and Holly Watts say they feel their skills are being wasted (Catriona Walker/PA)

“We don’t know if the embassy or the FCO are going to organise a coach for us,” Ms Walker said. “We’ve not heard anything.

“And you don’t find out a date apparently until 12 to 24 hours before the flight leaves.”

Ms Walker, who works in anaesthetics, and Ms Watts, an emergency medicine trainee, are both trained to work in intensive care, and are likely be working alongside Covid-19 patients if they were back in the UK.


“Our jobs are a vocation rather than just a job,” Ms Walker said. “We both really enjoy our jobs, we feel really helpless being here.

“I’m not saying we should get special treatment but I would have thought they’d be keen to get NHS staff back home, but that’s not the experience that we’ve had at all.”

She added: “We basically both feel our skills are going to waste here.”

An FCO spokesman said: “We know it’s a difficult time for many British travellers abroad – especially those with challenging circumstances.

“Our consular teams are doing everything they can, especially for those in difficulty, to keep Brits informed on the latest developments and help them return – on commercial flights where they are still available or special charter flights as well.

“We’ll continue working around the clock to bring people home.”

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