Fort’s Matthew rolls up his sleeve at the South Pole for Covid jab

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Fort William man Matthew Phillips has made a little bit of history when he became one of a handful of people to have their Covid jabs at the furthest point south they have been administered.

The 39-year-old, who works as Winter Station Leader at the British Antarctic Survey’s remote Rothera Research Station, definitely made sure he was indoors when he rolled up his sleeve for his Covid jab, delivered to him at the South Pole where temperatures can plunge as low as -34C.

The vital vaccine arrives at the base via a small aircraft. NO F45 Matthew -8
The vital vaccine arrives at the base via a small aircraft.

Matthew was one of 23 team members who had the life-saving Astra Zeneca vaccine flown over 9,000 miles to them by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

And Matthew said: ‘We’re the last Brits to get our Covid vaccine – but there was no way we’d have been rolling our sleeves up outside. We might just have got through 205 days of winter and into spring, but the temperature is still around -4C outdoors, so it’s still a bit chilly.

‘This isn’t the easiest place in the world to be evacuated to a hospital if there’s an emergency, so getting the Covid vaccine will help keep everyone safe over a busy summer.

‘People say it’s easier to get someone off of the International Space Station than getting someone out of Antarctica during the winter because when the sea freezes the chances of getting a ship in are slim to none.

‘We have a runway here at Rothera, but the winter weather and conditions make it extremely difficult to get a plane in and out. We want to do everything we can to keep the station population and the Antarctic Covid-free.’

Matthew gets his Covid jab at the South Pole. NO F45 Matthew 01
Matthew gets his Covid jab at the South Pole.

Antarctica has been Covid-free since Chile was forced to evacuate staff from its base last December after 36 people tested positive.

The UK’s delivery will help keep things that way after the epic 9,000-mile journey which saw the medical supplies flown from RAF Brize Norton, in Oxfordshire, to Dakar, Senegal and on to the Falkland Islands.

From there, a tiny Twin Otter plane performed the final leg and was the first aircraft
to reach the Rothera research team for 205 days.

Matthew added: ‘I believe we are the final British Overseas territory to receive the vaccine. We must also represent the most complicated logistical challenge to get jabs in arms.’

Matthew has not been home to Fort William since setting sail from the UK aboard the RRS James Clark Ross boat on November 4 last year – reaching the Rothera outpost on Christmas Eve.

This was the sixth winter the former Edinburgh-born bar manager, who now lives in Fort William, has spent in Antarctica, having fallen in love with the world’s most southernly continent.

Matthew added: ‘I think it’s potentially the most extreme environment on the planet, short of throwing yourself into a volcano. It’s not as dangerous as it used to be in the days of Scott and Amundsen – but there’s still a real sense of adventure to it.

Matthew Phillips, pictured, has spent six winters in the Antarctic. NO F45 Matthew 03
Matthew Phillips, pictured, has spent six winters in the Antarctic.

‘The lowest temperature I’ve encountered in my time here at Rothera is -32C. The biggest temperature swing I’ve seen here in a 24-hour period is from -28 to +1.

‘We don’t see the sun for around two months in winter – most of June and July. But the winter sky can be absolutely incredible. ‘

The number of scientists based at Rothera reaches 160 over the summer months meaning as Winter Station Leader, Matthew is busy handling the logistics of keeping the base running, ordering supplies and organising rotas.

Global Health minister Wendy Morton commented: ‘The transport of vaccines to the ends of the Earth shows our commitment to the people who live and work in the UK’s Overseas Territories.

‘The government has supported the territories with vaccines and medical equipment through the pandemic. It has been an enormous logistical effort, of which the UK can be proud.’