NEOC Operation Bring Em Home
In the face of the global coronavirus pandemic, 183 passenger flights have arrived in the Cayman Islands between March and June 2020. They have brought almost 800 people home to the Cayman Islands and allowed over 2,600 people to leave our islands.
The initial demand was from students who were studying overseas and had been forced to return because their college or university had been closed at short notice. For others, they were escaping the chaos and confusion of countries whose health care systems were under strain from the Coronavirus pandemic. Some were returning from COVID-19 hotspots and had taken lengthy routes to connect with the air bridge from London. Many had a fear of bringing the virus back with them and infecting the community, family and relatives. A plan was needed to complete this undertaking, safely and efficiently, at pace.
This was in the fledgling days of Government’s COVID-19 planning and preparation, and the “Bring ‘Em Home” operation was hatched from what was supposed to be a half-day planning exercise for the National Emergency Operations Centre (NEOC). A facilitated brainstorming session involving the combined expertise of around 50 people from across the civil service and partner organisations led to the drawing up of a workable plan, with both safety and efficiency in mind. Within hours, operation “Bring ‘Em Home” was approved by Cabinet and mere days later, the first Caymanians were being safely repatriated into the Cayman Islands, with the first isolation facility up and running.
The logistics involved were complex, given the civil service does not ordinarily run isolation facilities or hotels. Furthermore, there were challenges such as the need to match room availability to the number of people approved to travel together and complex arrangements to get them safely from their flight to their designated isolation facility where they would be looked after for a minimum of 14 days and then be tested.
Lois Kellyman, part of the Human Concerns cluster within the NEOC, was the first isolation facility manager and said she found the greatest challenge to be keeping the residents motivated throughout the isolation period.
She added: “We all know that students studying overseas look forward to returning home, sleeping in their own beds, visiting and catching up with family and friends and going to the beach. However, here they were, close to the beach but confined to their rooms and unable to have social interaction with friends and families for what seemed to be forever. As a result, we maintained constant communication with the residents, through WhatsApp and daily telephone ‘care’ calls. We decided to offer a “Taste of Cayman” as a treat for the students and provided mini Cassava cakes for each, sponsored by the Lions Club of Tropical Gardens."
By the end of 6 June, different hotel sites had been operationalised as isolation facilities and each has had its own challenges. One of the biggest tasks was to ensure the risk of exposure to staff was managed and that there was no possibility of the public accidently coming into contact with those in isolation. Clear protocols around security and infection control required bespoke arrangements being put in place at each location, in line with advice from Health Services Authority, Public Health, the Department of Environmental Health and the newly formed Cayman Islands Regiment. Every flight was met by the NEOC ops team who co-ordinated with partner agencies and colleagues to ensure everything was in place to help both those leaving the country and facilitate those arriving and heading to isolation facilities.
Every inbound passenger had their temperature and travel history screened on arrival, by teams observing social distancing and wearing PPE. New arrivals were warmly welcomed home and on to awaiting buses for transportation to their hotel.
Some of the outbound flights came with an added requirement to screen passengers, as each country and airline had created their own set of procedures and protocols that had to be followed to ensure plans were executed without a hitch.
Graeme Jackson who was seconded from Portfolio of the Civil Service to NEOC Operations said “I remember some of the early flights, especially the returning students. We had parents who were upset about their children on one side of the airport and students who were exhausted and worried about their parents on the other. We were typically in the middle explaining to both sides why they could not see each other and that our focus was on keeping everyone safe. We did our best to reassure and console both sides. On one occasion we even found ourselves singing happy birthday to a student on behalf of the parents. In another we set up a video call to reassure the parents that everything was fine. Everyone has gone the extra mile to support this operation and the teamwork across all departments and agencies has been incredible”.
Laura Watler, who had only been recruited into the Civil Service in February, and was immediately seconded to the NEOC team, has co-ordinated the logistics.
She reflected “When you see the recruitment literature about making lives better I didn’t appreciate that within days I would be helping so many people and having such an impact. At times it has been stressful and tiring but the long hours have been worth it, in the knowledge that we made made a difference to people’s lives and kept the community safe. I am grateful for the relationships built across so many government entities and the collaboration and professionalism will forever make an impression on me. We have all come together to Bring ‘Em Home.”
Mark Ray, seconded from the Department of Education Services, was responsible for the co-ordination of ground transportation. Using a combination of commercial transport and school buses, each journey was carefully planned to ensure sufficient social distancing was observed, drivers were briefed on PPE use and the routes to be followed. Each vehicle was professionally sanitised after every trip.
Mark noted “The drivers have been awesome. They have turned up every day without fail and in challenging circumstances. The health protocols require the vehicles to be driven without air conditioning so it is not the most comfortable situation for the driver or passenger. We aim to minimise the time people are on the vehicle which means we have to be very efficient in loading and unloading. We are grateful to the RCIPS who have supported us with route planning and minimising the journey times.”
Chris Smith, who was formally Operations Director at Intertrust, volunteered to support the NEOC operations team. He had recently returned from a planned world adventure which was cut short by the Coronavirus pandemic.
Chris said “I am not the sort of person who can sit at home when I can make a difference and being part of this team has been a fantastic experience. Previously I have only looked at the civil service from the perspective of being in the private sector and a member of the public. The commitment and dedication of the whole team has been impressive - nothing gets in their way to deliver a positive outcome, even with the most challenging of customers and circumstances.”
Deputy Governor, Hon. Franz Manderson visited the airport team on Friday, 26 June to thank everyone who has made the operation a success. “It’s great to see so many departments and organisations come together to deliver a single outcome – making lives better. On this occasion it was about keeping people safe and reducing the spread of a disease. The team delivered professionally, with passion and at pace.
“I have been overwhelmed by the number of people who emailed me complimenting the Civil Service for everything that has been done to bring them home, including individual travellers and a senior airline pilot. The NEOC has been operational for over 100 days and is now winding down as the civil service resumes business as usual. But I recognise that there is still much to be done and more flights are in the pipeline.
“With our CurfewTime service no longer needed, it is being re-rolled to take over as TravelTime and will provide ongoing support to emergency travellers from next week and until our borders are reopened. This will allow the NEOC operations team, who have been working relentlessly for three months, to get some rest and prepare for the next challenge”.
For further information contact: Caroline James