Coronavirus Royal Navy veteran, 79, says he was 'treated like a leper'

British Royal Navy veteran, 79, says he was ‘treated like a leper’ as people recoiled when they saw him after discharge from hospital with coronavirus

  • Lieutenant Commander Robert Embleton served in the Royal Navy for 34 years
  • The veteran was awarded an MBE by the Queen in 1993 for his outstanding work  
  • He beat coronavirus in hospital and staff applauded when he was discharged
  • Residents at his retirement home, however, treated him like ‘a plague carrier’ 
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

A Royal Navy veteran who spent nearly a month battling coronavirus said he was ‘treated like a leper’ when he was finally discharged from hospital. 

After successfully beating the killer bug in Derriford Hospital, 79-year old Robert Embleton was driven by ambulance to his retirement home in Portsmouth. 

But instead of receiving a welcoming return from neighbours, the former Lieutenant Commander, who spent 34 years serving in the British Royal Navy, was left devastated by residents’ response to his recovery.

‘I was regarded as a sort of leper, a plague carrier. Some people when they spotted me, they recoiled,’ he said.


British Navy veteran Robert Embleton is pictured above left  in February 1971 showing schoolchildren around HMS Danae. He can be seen pausing during a gym workout (right) in Plymouth in February 2018. After beating coronavirus in hospital, the veteran said he said he considered buying a bell to warn others of his presence because ‘I was particularly regarded as a menace.’

Embleton said even he considered buying a bell to warn others of his presence because ‘I was particularly regarded as a menace’. 

Charities warn they have heard many similar stories which are leaving the elderly ‘feeling isolated and ostracized.’ 

The veteran’s frosty reception from fellow residents was a stark contrast to his final moments in hospital, when he received a round of applause from frontline staff cheering his recovery.

Robert Embleton, rear left, on HMS Danae in Singapore can be seen presenting his supply and secretariat division to Vice Admiral Sir David Williams, left, during inspection in 1971 

Embleton, who received an MBE from the Queen for his outstanding service in the Royal Navy in 1993, said he understands the need to shield elderly people with underlying conditions, but that those without serious health issues should be treated with much more ‘common sense.’

He warned that lockdown is ‘sapping the equanimity and self-confidence’ of most elderly people and is ‘increasingly intolerable’ for those who, like him, have no underlying health conditions and are active members of their local communities.

‘It is not right to treat all old people as children, incapable of assessing risk’, he said. 

British charities for the elderly have reported many similar tales of hostile receptions among care home residents. They hope that a ramped-up testing program will provide some reassurance for retirement and care home residents. 

Ruthe Isden, head of health influencing at Age UK, said: ‘It just adds another layer of tragedy to the situation that residents who recover – something that should be celebrated as a much-needed piece of good news – are feeling isolated and ostracized as a result’. 

When Embleton returned home he was taken immediately into self-isolation with his wife of 55 years Jean, who has shown no symptoms of the virus. 

The quarantine reminded him his time aboard the HMS Galatea near the Arctic Circle during the 1976 Cod War between Britain and Iceland over North Atlantic fishing rights.

‘Doing things like a best part of the year in the Arctic, just you and your ship, it’s rather like being in the over-70s lockdown for COVID-19,’ he said.

‘You start thinking differently, you’ve got to get on with it, you won’t be going home, you won’t be seeing your family.’

In this image taken June 29, 1977, Lt. Cmdr. Robert Embleton is pictured during Queen Elizabeth II’s review of the fleet at Portsmouth, southern England for her Silver Jubilee

The same applies for Jean, who endured her husband’s brush with death in self-isolation at home.

‘It’s not pleasant but as a serviceman’s wife, particularly a naval wife, then you get used to these periods of time that you are on your own so I probably weathered it rather better than some people,’ she said.

‘I was brought up to think that husbands went away and that they came back.’ 

During his time in hospital Embleton shared a ward with three other patients battling the virus. 

They discussed their fears of being stigmatised by members of the public for having had coronavirus.  

An image from video taken in 1977 showing HMS Galatea, a a Leander-class frigate, which Lt. Cmdr. Robert Embleton served on near the Arctic Circle, during the Cod War of 1976

Poorna Gunasekera, 57, shared a ward with Embleton and spoke of the ‘dreadful fear’ at the idea of infecting others with the bug. 

‘We expected to be somewhat stigmatized, and that would be normal because I suppose I would do the same if the roles were reversed,’ he said.  

The situation at Embleton’s retirement home has since improved – but only after he offered a glass of wine to a 79-year-old lady living next door.    

It was enough to incite a change, however, and ‘all along the top floor, the others came out with their glasses filled and gave all a wave and a smile,’ he said. 

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