More than 250 young British ski resort workers returned to the UK yesterday after being stranded for more than a fortnight in the Austrian Alps near the resort feared to be the origin of Europe’s coronavirus outbreak.
The seasonal staff – many of them teenagers working in chalets during a gap year – were placed in quarantine on March 13 and threatened with enormous fines if they tried to leave St Anton and its neighbouring villages.
Yesterday, following a week of feverish diplomatic activity by UK tour firms and the British embassy in Vienna, they were finally reunited with their anxious parents after flying from Innsbruck Airport on two specially-chartered Jet 2 flights to Birmingham and Stansted.
St. Anton was placed under stick quarantine amid the ongoing coronavirus crisis
However, another 80 young Britons are still stuck in the resort – because they were working directly for Austrian hotels.
They have been told they must stay quarantined for at least two more weeks.
The coachloads allowed to leave the resort were ordered to travel in convoy with an escort of armed police.
Before they could board, the Britons were warned that anyone taking photos or using mobiles before they left the country would be thrown off their bus and forced to stay indefinitely.
Their departure follows an abrupt U-turn by the Austrian authorities, who have been accused of failing to take action when cases of the virus first emerged in mid-January in Ischgl – which lies on the other side of the same mountain massif as St Anton.
Austrian prosecutors are investigating claims the spread of the virus was deliberately hushed up to protect Ischgl’s ski trade.
It is thought that dozens or even hundreds of visitors fell ill there and spread the disease when they returned to their homes across the continent.
Daren Bland, an IT consultant from Maresfield in East Sussex, went on holiday there from January 15 to 19 and may have been Britain’s first coronavirus patient.
He told The Mail on Sunday: ‘When I got home, I was really ill with what we now know to be classic coronavirus symptoms for ten days, and I didn’t fully recover for four weeks.’
Mr Bland, 50, said the friends he was skiing with – three Danes and an American – also succumbed to the illness.
Officially, the first UK case was not recorded until January 31, with the first case of infection being transmitted in Britain following on February 28.
In western Austria, the ski season ended prematurely because of the Coronavirus
However, Mr Bland’s wife and two daughters all caught the same illness much earlier, and are thought to have spread it to others before this date.
None of them have had tests, either for the illness or for antibodies since they recovered. Ischgl did not go into lockdown until March 13.
Although the last guests were allowed to leave, police checkpoints were set up on the edge of the resort and the Britons were told they were trapped.
The police said anyone venturing out without a valid reason could be fined €1,400.
Arriving at Birmingham, Lottie Dickens, 20, from Bath, said: ‘The police were waving guns at us as we got on the bus and told us we had to wear masks and gloves until we landed in England. I’m so relieved to be back.’
But still stuck in Austria was James Churchman, 19, from Amersham in Buckinghamshire.
‘None of us who work for Austrian employers were allowed to leave,’ he said.
His mother, Sarah, said: ‘The British Government has done nothing to help those who weren’t working for UK operators.’