A former Edinburgh bar manager is one of the last people in town to be offered a Covid vaccine – because he lives in the South Pole.
Matthew Phillips, 39, works as a winter station manager at the British Antarctic Survey’s Rothera research station, where temperatures can drop to -34 ° C.
Matthew was one of 23 team members to whom the life-saving Astra Zeneca vaccine was flown over 9,000 miles by the Foreign, Commonwealth Development Office.
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This is the most southerly where the jabs were administered.
And Edinburgh-born Matthew said: ‘We are the last Brits to receive our Covid vaccine – but there was no way we would have rolled up our sleeves outside.
“We may have just come through 205 winter and spring days, but the temperature is still around -4 ° C outside, so it’s still a little chilly.
“It’s not the easiest place in the world to be evacuated to a hospital in an emergency, so getting the Covid vaccine will help keep everyone safe during a busy summer.
“People say it’s easier to get someone off the International Space Station than it is to get someone out of Antarctica during the winter, because when the sea freezes the chances of bringing a ship in are thin, or even zero. We have a runway here in Rothera, but the weather and wintry conditions make it extremely difficult to get in and out of a plane.
“We want to do everything possible to keep the population of the station and Antarctica Covid-free. “
Antarctica has been Covid-free since Chile was forced to evacuate personnel from its base last December after 36 people tested positive.
The UK delivery will help keep things going after an epic 9,000 mile journey that saw medical supplies dispatched from RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, Dakar, Senegal and the Falkland Islands. From there, a small Twin Otter plane made the last stop and was the first plane to reach the Rothera research team for 205 days.
Matthew added: “I think we are the last British Overseas Territory to receive the vaccine. We also have to be the most complicated logistical challenge to get gunshots. “
Matthew has not returned home since leaving the UK aboard the RRS boat James Clark Ross on November 4 last year – reaching Rothera outpost on Christmas Eve.
It was the sixth winter that the former Edinburgh bar manager, who now lives in Fort William, spent in Antarctica, having fallen in love with the world’s southernmost continent.
Matthew said, “I think it’s potentially the extremist environment on the planet, unless you throw yourself into a volcano.
“It’s not as dangerous as it was in Scott and Amundsen’s days, but there is still a real sense of adventure.
“The lowest temperature I have encountered during my stay here in Rothera is -32 ° C. The biggest temperature variation I have seen here over a 24 hour period is from -28 to +1.
“We don’t see the sun for about two months in winter – most of June and July. But winter skies can be absolutely amazing. Polar stratospheric clouds or pearly clouds are common here. The average cloud in the UK is at 15,000 feet, while these polar stratospheric clouds are extremely high at 60,000 feet.
“They are formed by freezing crystals from moisture in the atmosphere. They are often illuminated below by the sun when the rest of the sky is dark and they are strange to see.
“They were seen recently in southern Scotland and people thought they were UFOs.”
The dangers facing Matthew and his colleagues were highlighted when the British marine biologist
Kirsty Brown was killed after being dragged underwater by a leopard seal in 2003.
But he said, “If you love wildlife and scenery, this place is almost unbeatable. I love it here.
“We see a few different types of penguins and seals and in about a month there is a group of resident killer whales coming to this area and we see them almost daily. There are also whales.
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“The rules of the Antarctic Treaty mean that we are not allowed to approach within five meters of wildlife, but quite often the penguins will approach you out of curiosity and peck your eyes. boots.
“We have a marine team that continues to do science through the winter months, including dives. They take a chainsaw and make a hole in the ice floe.
“The water temperature is around -1C or -2C, so the divers are obviously absolutely frozen by the time they come out. As soon as they get out of the water, a layer of ice forms on their drysuits, so they get pretty stiff in seconds, so that can be pretty comical, but we make sure you get them into a place quickly. pleasant and warm. “
The number of scientists based in Rothera reaches 160 during the summer months, meaning that the chief of the winter station, Matthew, takes care of the logistics of maintaining the base, ordering supplies and the organization of rotations.
The polar explorer admits his work has made it difficult to find love.
Matthew said: “I don’t know if I would describe myself as a loner, but I’m certainly comfortable in my own business.
“The first time I came down south I had a long-term partner, but being here puts a huge strain on a relationship.
“I think it’s harder for the person left behind in the real world because the perception is that you are here having this amazing adventure, while the reality is that you are behind a desk working the most of the time.
“I’ve had six winters now and chances are I’ll meet the right person, so having winters like this won’t be realistic. But I’ll just keep going there and see what happens.
And he laughed, “I have three older brothers and they all produced grandchildren for my mother… but it’s not enough. She often makes it difficult for me to settle in, so maybe that is one of the reasons I come here.
Global Health Minister Wendy Morton said: “Transporting vaccines to the ends of the earth shows our commitment to the people who live and work in the British Overseas Territories.
“The government supported the territories with vaccines and medical supplies during the pandemic. It has been a huge logistical effort, of which the UK can be proud. “