'We thought the virus would never reach Britain': Student who returned to S'pore urges others to come home

A deserted street amid the coronavirus outbreak in Manchester, Britain, on March 19, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - London medical school student Ian Soh did not make the decision to return to Singapore easily, but what he witnessed at Heathrow Airport as he left on Sunday (March 15) convinced him of the seriousness of the global pandemic - and that he had made the right choice.

Opening up to The Straits Times about his journey home, the 19-year-old Malaysian whose family is based in Singapore described the "nightmarish" scenario at the airport as he waited to board his flight, with travellers around him garbed in hazmat suits and raincoats.

"None of us wanted to (leave) because we did not see the point or felt that the coronavirus was quite far away from Britain then and would not reach it... (This) was a misconception," he said.

Britain reported its first confirmed case of the virus in January, although these were initially imported cases from China. As local clusters began to emerge later, Mr Soh said he grew alarmed as he saw first-hand the panic buying which had up till then been just an Asian phenomenon.

He said: "Towards the third week of February, supermarkets started running out of poultry and eggs and I had to survive on pasta for at least a week before different items started getting replenished. Panic buying is happening in (Britain), not just in Asia."

He then decided to return home following a debate with his parents, who urged him to return home as soon as possible. "I would have (had) no one to turn to and no one to take care of me if I were to fall sick... When I tried to get hand sanitisers and face masks, the prices were also extortionate," he said.

Mr Soh said he had to queue for almost three hours at Heathrow because there was only one counter for at least three different airlines. He estimates that there were over 1,000 people in the queue.

"Sometimes, you really cannot believe some things on social media until you see it for yourself... The poor knowledge of (how to put on masks) also led some travellers to contaminate their masks, defeating the purpose of putting on masks in the first place," he said.

He is self-isolating for two weeks despite having arrived before the stay-home notice for travellers from Britain kicked in.

He urged students who are still overseas to "make a decision fast", saying that the unpredictability of governments' responses to the evolving Covid-19 situation could lead to border controls that may impede future travel.

The fluid global situation during the Covid-19 pandemic has led Singaporean students studying abroad to book flights home en masse. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Tuesday urged Singaporeans studying abroad to consider returning to the country.

Meanwhile, university students abroad have also taken the initiative to stay on top of developments and clarify ambiguities with their respective educational institutions.

ST understands that the Oxford University Malaysian & Singaporean Students' Association, which counts among its ranks 300 active members, on Monday sent a letter to the university's vice-chancellor and pro-vice-chancellor for education seeking clarification on its arrangements for international students during this period.

Among other concerns, the letter said students were worried about possible border controls Britain might impose, which could see them unable to return to the university for classes and exams next term.

"(We) hope that being more transparent about its considerations, particularly the circumstances under which different contingencies will be implemented, the university can help not only Singaporean but all international students at Oxford to make informed decisions about alternative arrangements, should the situation deteriorate further," the letter said.

The university has since assured the society that the necessary processes will be put in place to ensure no student is disadvantaged academically. It has also sent out an e-mail saying that those who choose not to return home to their home countries "are welcome to do so and we will support you staying in Oxford".

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The Singapore Society of Imperial College London has also created a live news link that provides updates to its members of the Covid-19 situation, including a section of which airlines are still operating between Britain and Singapore.

Britain is one of the most popular destinations for Singaporeans pursuing higher education, with about 6,750 Singapore students there in the academic year 2018/2019, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

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