‘Living hell’ of island oil worker after test

An island oil worker who experienced a “living nightmare” while out in Malaysia has now decided to return to work in the Far East – only this time to a country with even greater problems.

Thursday, 15th April 2021, 2:45 pm
Derek O'Connor works internationally for Transocean.

Derek O’ Connor (49), originally from Stornoway but now living in Ness, was detained in a “prison” near Kuala Lumpur for 10 days after falsely testing positive for Covid.

Speaking to the Gazette before just heading back out to Myanmar, a country in the midst of violent political unrest, he said he felt relatively unscathed by the incident.

His ordeal started when he was just getting ready for the journey back home in January, after a six-week spell on a Transocean drilling rig.

He was required to return two negative Covid tests – a PCR test to allow entry back to the UK and a “rapid” test to enable travel within Malaysia.

“I was just enjoying the heat and the sunshine at the airport in Kuala Lumpur when I got a phone from the health authorities,” he said. “The rapid test had come back negative but they said the PCR was positive.

“I couldn’t see how that could be. We were tested and quarantined before going out to the rig and I hadn’t come into contact with anyone before arriving at the airport and being tested. So I told them it must be a mistake.”

However, he was instructed to stay where he was and a medical team despatched.

“About an hour later they came with all their suits and sprays and sprayed my luggage, but at least not me at this stage,” he said. “And I was told to wait for the police so they could clear a path through the airport to the holding area. OK, I thought, this is getting a bit out of hand.”

Mr O’ Connor was taken down to immigration and was told he would be transported from there to a “quarantine centre”.

“I had visions in my own head of an isolation ward in a hospital with wifi and nice bed. After a couple of hours I was taken to an ambulance and the blues and twos were on and sirens blaring. Off we went shooting down the highway like I was in imminent danger of losing my life, the cars moving out of the way. I was doing a video call to Fiona (his wife) and was showing all this and saying: ‘What on earth is going on?”

About half an hour later they arrived at their destination in Serdang, just south of the capital.

“I was looking around and it was then that I realised this isn’t what I had in my head at all,” he said. “There was loads of people, all immigrants I’d say, just sitting around, no social distancing whatsoever. I told them again why I thought it was wrong but didn’t make a difference – no re-test, nothing.”

After being processed, he was put on a “jam-packed” bus and taken to what would be his accommodation for the next 10 days.

“They opened a door and I could see into the hall,” he said. “My heart sank. There were hundreds and hundreds of people and hundreds and hundreds of bunk beds, as far as the eye could see. This was quarantine in Malaysia.

“My heart had sank to a new low. I was the only person in there of non-Asian descent. People were just staring at me.” He was handed just a thin bed sheet and shown his bunk bed.

The following morning, the enormity of it all hit home. In the one hall there were over 3,000 male foreign workers and the food consisted of a little boiled rice and dry meat, fish mostly, which they had to eat with their hands as no cutlery was allowed. Consistent noise made it impossible to sleep. “It was like a prison camp or a refugee camp, you just can’t imagine it.”

The one saving grace was he was able to use his mobile, charging it in the middle of the night when sockets were available. He managed to get in touch with a company agent “but the only thing they allowed in was a blanket and shower gel.”

A call to the British High Commission in Malaysia resulted in further disappointment. “They said it was a government thing and they had no influence. The guy said the only advice he could give me was to try and get a lawyer. I just hung up on him.”

He had resigned himself to the fact that this was going to be his existence for the new few days and “after a very long week” was eventually allowed home.

“The thing is I had to get tested again and I was thinking, well, if I didn’t have it before I went in I was bound to have it now. But fortunately I was negative and allowed to fly home. Other antigen and antibody tests taken proved that I never had Covid to begin with.”

Apart from losing a bit of weight, he came out of the situation relatively unscathed and is now out in Myanmar with the same company.

“I got a guarantee from them that nothing like that will happen again,” he said. “The company didn’t even know this quarantine place existed. The thing is as I had tested positive the whole rig went into quarantine and everyone on it tested. Everyone negative. I was right; it was a false positive. I was imprisoned for no reason.”

He added: “I thought Malaysia was a good country. I’ve been working over there since 2018 with no absolutely no problem but this experience just showed me a totally different side to their ways of dealing with things.”