Published: 18:53, 25 June 2021
| Updated: 18:56, 25 June 2021
It was the end of an era when Swale's first mass coronavirus testing centre for people without symptoms of Covid-19 closed its doors for the last time.
At its height, staff at Sheerness East Working Men's Club at Halfway, Sheppey, were testing 700 people a day at an estimated £45 a time. When it closed this evening (Friday) only 43 had been booked in.
Final day at the Sheppey Covid asymptomatic test centre
Paula Magri, 59, of Barton Hill Drive, Minster, was one of the first to volunteer to help and was still working at the centre on its last day.
She said: "Initially, it was scary because we were so busy. The highest number we had on any one day was 684 and that was on December 23, seven days after we opened. People were queuing out into the street. That figure didn't include staff tests, we all had to take a test every day.
"At the time, Sheppey was in meltdown with one of the highest Covid rates in the country. Then the demand levelled out to 300 to 500 a day.
"We have had all sorts of people through the door, from little children to 95-year-olds. They have come in for all types of reasons. Some have needed a test because they were going abroad or attending a funeral or going to hospital. We've had many mums-to-be coming in for tests on their way to pregnancy scans.
"And we've had our regulars who, I think, just pop in for an excuse to have a chat. Some hadn't been outside their front doors for 15 months. We'll miss them."
At the height of the pandemic the centre had a roster of 50 staff doing shifts. Towards the end, it came down to 25.
Among the team which stayed the distance, along with Paula, were Tania Searle-Dighton of Minster, Thom Hodgkinson from Sittingbourne and Emma Tullett who was happily living at Eastchurch until her bungalow disappeared over the cliff last year.
Despite the domestic trauma of having to find a new home, Emma said: "It's been really good. I've really enjoyed myself."
Tania added: "It's been lovely. We've met some amazing people who we are going to stay in touch with for the rest of our lives. We all thought it was only going to be for six weeks but it ended up being over seven months. I am really proud to have been part of it."
Test operative Thom admitted: "There have been too many interesting experiences to pick one but it's certainly been a learning curve. I've learned how to administer the test and also to blow up plastic gloves!" He was too polite to mention the woman visitor on Christmas Eve who misunderstood directions and tried to push her nose under the Perspex screen to get it swabbed.
Another familiar face of the team has been security guard Dan Scriven, 30, from Sittingbourne who has been keeping a wary eye on the front door. He said: "There were just a few issues at the very start but since then everyone has been really well behaved."
The centre was offering lateral flow tests which give results within 30 minutes. Those being tested must stick a swab down the back of their throats to tickle their tonsils and then insert the same stick up both nostrils. It is not the most pleasant of experiences.
At the beginning of Friday, the centre had chalked up 27,992 public tests. Staff were confident it would hit 28,000 by the time it closed. Daily tests for staff pushed the figure even higher.
Paula Smith runs the social club and had been hosting the team along with her manager Alison Dowling. Paula said: "It's been lovely to have them here. Some have already moved on but Paula and Thom are staying with me as staff members once we close the centre and reopen as normal.
"It was lovely seeing our customers coming through the door to be tested so we could keep track of them. We've had lots of laughs, lots of giggles and lots of cake! We'll miss them."
She also made sure all youngsters left with a free sweet. Unlike some centres, staff allowed a few Islanders to turn up without appointments.
Paula said: "They realised some elderly people on Sheppey didn't like booking over the internet so we made it clear on our Facebook page they could just pop along and they'd be slotted in."
The site was launched in a blaze of publicity by Kent County Council on December 17. On February 16 it recorded 21 positives - the highest in a single day.
But it has not reported a single positive result since April 17. Across Swale, out of 59,346 tests, only 522 (0.88%) of people tested were found to have Covid. But that is still the highest figure in Kent. The public is now advised to use free home-testing kits.
As for the club, it is preparing to get back to "normal." The testing booths will be dismantled on Monday and the hall will be given a deep clean in time for ballroom dancing classes to return on Thursday.
After that, Covid allowing, table tennis will return on Monday and Tuesday evenings, a choir will begin rehearsals on Wednesday afternoons, the darts team will be allowed to use its darts boards again, pigeon-fanciers will return at the weekends and the rock 'n' roll club will be able to get all shook up again from next month.
Paula added: "Our function room is booked up to the end of the year for events once the coronavirus restrictions end."
Hopefully, there will be no further positive results.
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