06 Jul 2022

Former British Home Secretary offers Derry men caravan after Covid drama in Welsh mountains

Paul McErlean tweeted a digital SOS during his hike with friends on Snowdonia last month.

Former British Home Secretary offers Derry men caravan after Covid drama in Welsh mountains

Paul McErlean (right), with Charlie Coward (left) and Andreas Maltan (centre) have been isolating until today in a vacant property in Cheshire following their ordeal.

After Paul McErlean tweeted about being stranded in Wales after testing positive for Covid-19, there were a few big names among those offering help. Liam Tunney caught up with the Lavey man ahead of his exit from isolation.

“I'm not that bad, in fairness. Most of the symptoms have gone, but I'm a bit scunnered being stuck in isolation.”

Paul McErlean is speaking to me from a vacant property in Cheshire, northern England. The 23-year-old has had a tumultuous last fortnight.

Friday July 23, around 8.00pm. While around the rest of the country, his peers may have been settling down for a night in the pub, Paul was issuing a digital SOS.

“ADVICE NEEDED,” his tweet began.

“Me + 2 lads are hiking in Wales, just got a positive COVID test 20 mins ago. Cant stay at the planned campsite tonight, have no where to isolate and already know every b&b etc is booked up. No accommodation, no transport and just finished a near 30km hike. What do [we do]?”

Along with Charlie Coward from Ballymaguigan and Andreas Maltan from Austria, Paul had just completed the opening leg of a hiking trip when he found out he had tested positive for Covid-19.

“We were thinking initially of bringing cars and doing a day hike, but we decided we'd do a hike called the Snowdonia way; from Machynlleth to Conwy,” he told the County Derry Post.

“While on the ferry over, I had sore muscles in my shoulders and neck.I thought if we're going to be on a hike, the last thing I wanted was to be lying in a tent in the middle of Snowdonia.

“I said I'd get myself a test, just to be safe, but by the time we got into Birkenhead and walked to the test centre in Wirral, they said it was closed.

“The next day, we were getting the train from Liverpool down to Machynlleth, and had a lay-over of a couple of hours in Wolverhampton on the way.

“The symptoms were gone, but I had already committed to getting a test, so I said I may as well just go and get it. I didn't think much more of it.

Andreas and Paul on the first leg of their hike.

“We had hiked nearly 30km over the mountain and we were walking into Dolgellau when I got a message to say I was positive.”

The lads had been walking for almost nine hours when the Lavey man received the text message, and the campsite at which they were to stay was finally in sight.

There was no B&B availability in the town, while the closest hotel was not accepting Covid-positive travellers for isolation.

After informing the campsite they had tested positive for the virus, the panic began to set in.

“We had no water, we couldn't go to the shop to get anything. We couldn't get on transport to go anywhere; we had no car or anything like that, and we'd nowhere to stay,” said Paul.

“We were sitting there in a graveyard beside the campsite, in a wee field, trying to sort something out. We were ringing the NHS and police helplines.

“I was on the phone for 20 minutes on hold, but I had people ringing me because of the tweet and my parents were trying to ring me as well, so I had to hang up.

“One of the other boys was on hold for 40 minutes before getting through, and by that point it was getting darker and the longer we were waiting, the more panic there was.

“We also had hardly any battery left on our phones at this point too. That's why I put up the tweet, because I really didn't know what else to do. It was a bit of a disaster.”

The three friends had been hiking through the Welsh hills.

Paul's distress signal found an audience ready and willing to help. Derry Girls writer Lisa McGee retweeted the plea, and there was one eye-catching political name among those offering help.

Former British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith appeared on the thread to offer the use of her nearby caravan for the men to isolate in.

“When Paul's plight was brought to my attention, and I realised how close he was to where the caravan was, I couldn't leave him wandering the Welsh mountains,” she said.

“I was more than happy to offer them the chance to stay there, but also very pleased they were able to find accommodation.

“I've got two boys in their 20s myself, and I'd hate the idea that nobody would help them if they found themselves in a similar position.

“There is something about the pandemic that I hope has brought out the best in people, and the only way we're going to get through is by helping each other.”

The eventual rescue though had roots closer to home. Paul's father had a work contact in Warrington, who offered to drive down the following morning and bring the lads up in his pick-up truck.

Local police had provided water to get them through the night, but with all the lads' phone batteries dead, they were left to rely on blind faith.

“The next day, my phone was out of battery and we had to trust that somebody would appear and lift us, which they did,” he said.

“He lifted us on the back of a pick-up and drove us up to a vacant property in Cheshire, which was going to be sold, and we're isolating in this property now.

The property in Cheshire where the men are isolating.

“It was very kind of them to let us use it, because some of the Air BnB options where we were would have been over £3,000.

“I'm very grateful for everybody who reached out to offer help, because we needed it. I'm glad we're sorted now and we're here until Tuesday.

“There was a bit of faith restored in humanity, that there are a lot of good people out there, and we're just grateful to have somewhere to sleep and somewhere to isolate.”

Paul says the incident has brought home the reality of the situation faced by many young people, who may not yet have received both doses of the Covid-19 vaccine.

Former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith offered the trio the use of her caravan.

“We wanted to minimise any contact with anyone; we didn't want to be wrecking any other people's holidays, so we decided we definitely had to isolate,” he said.

“Some people suggested we just find a way of getting transport and go home, but none of us wanted to break rules or expose anybody else to it.

“It highlights the problems for young people travelling that may not be double-vaccinated. They might not have the connections or capital to maybe solve problems as easily.”

The trio will not be immediately heading back down to Wales to finish what they started. Getting home will be the priority when their isolation period ends today.

“We'll maybe give it a go when we're all double-vaccinated just to be safe,” added Paul.

They can do so safe in the knowledge that they'll have a bed at the former Home Secretary's caravan if they need one.

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