Guernsey Defeats Coronavirus

Updated: Jun 22, 2020

Guernsey has become the first place in the British Isles to have no active cases of the virus. Who lead the campaign and how was Covid-19 defeated?

At the end of May, Guernsey became the first place in the British Isles to be declared free of Covid-19, a success many are putting down to the "one woman army" and local hero: Dr Nicola Brink. However, this South Africa born virologist, who moved to London in 1991 to teach at University College Hospital, before moving to Guernsey in 2003, remains humble about her achievements.

Brink insists that the island’s success at defeating the virus had been a team effort: “You can’t underestimate how important that team support is, they’ve all just fallen into working a seven-day-week up until the evenings. They’ve given up time with their families because they feel this is the priority. It’s amazing.”

Much of the success has been due to Blink's swift implementation, and the efficiency of, its “test, track and isolate” strategy. Although Guernsey has the advantage of being an island and having a small population - just 172,259 in 2019 - it still makes the UK’s efforts look more than a little bit shambolic. Indeed, like New Zealand, isn't the UK essentially an island (or two) too?

From March 28, every person to test positive in Guernsey was called within 24-hours of their diagnosis by a team of 35 contact tracers. Those who tested positive were also asked for a list of people with whom they had had significant contact in the 24 hours before. No app involved, just meticulous follow-up. Those on each list were then called, asked about their condition and instructed on self-isolation.

This strategy enabled the island to avoided the worst of the pandemic and the Princess Elizabeth Hospital - the only acute hospital in Guernsey - was not overwhelmed. In total, 13 people died of Covid-19 on the entire island. That's less than 0.01%.

Like the kiwis on the other side of the globe, residents can now enjoy access to gyms, restaurants, pubs, cafes, and hairdressers, and go about their lives pretty much as normal.

“I can remember after we had the first case. I was sitting in my office, I turned around and all the key members of my team in public health were there,” Dr Brink told The Times. “I just stood up very quietly and said, ‘OK. We’ve had our first case. We’re trained to do this. We’ve thought about it. Let’s just sort it out.’”

Women’s health has also been a priority for Brink. After moving to Guernsey in 2003, she took up a post in a clinical HIV and hepatology service. There, her team worked on initiatives to eradicate cervical cancer on the island, including the introduction of a free screening programme and HPV vaccination. These issues have remained high on her agenda ever since.

As a public health expert with a particular interest in virology, Dr Brink had spent much of her career preparing for a pandemic. Many are in agreement that her approach to the outbreak was calm yet incredibly well considered. "I always knew it was a possibility when we did our pandemic [training] exercise last year," she said. "I was really insistent that we did it, as it was a case of when rather than if.  We knew it was a risk which is why we spent so much time preparing for it."

One of the more unlikely things to come out of Dr Brink's new celebrity status is a side career in reading bedtime stories to the island's children. During the daily press briefings, which in the UK have become something of an exercise in monotony, people couldn't help but comment on her voice; soft and soothing.

In May, she was asked to record herself reading a bedtime story - Julia Donaldson’s A Squash and a Squeeze - to reassure Guernsey's youngsters. One Twitter user wrote: "I don’t have any children, but will be tuning in anyway - I’d like Dr Brink to read me a bedtime story every night."

Despite the island's success at curbing the spread of the coronavirus, Dr Brink remains adamant that residents must not get complacent - and that much of the hard work is still to come. "We're planning for the resurgance of a single case, a cluster of cases, our winter preparedness and a second wave. So we're already thinking about what could happen in the future. So preparation and planning," she told the Chris Evans Breakfast Show this month.

It seems that Dr Brink could be in for a few more restless nights yet before her work is done. But with more bedtime stories potentially in the pipeline, at least the island's children will be sleeping soundly.