Locked down or Locked out? How the UK’s Gypsy and Traveller communities are coping with Covid-19

Helen Jones is the CEO of Leeds Gypsy and Traveller Exchange which is a West Yorkshire based membership organisation for Gypsy and Traveller people. Leeds GATE offers support and development activities, as well as raising awareness of the needs and assets of the communities. In this guest blog Helen shares the largely unheard impact that Covid-19 is having for the UK’s Gypsy and Traveller communities.

Like everyone else during the Covid-19 crisis Gypsy and Traveller people are struggling.  But unlike many others they have particular issues to face, especially those families not able to fit onto our overcrowded public sites, or fearful of the consequences for the spread of Covid-19 if they do.

My role, CEO at Leeds Gypsy and Traveller Exchange, has taught me a lot firsthand about how people get through times of crisis. In a time when some return from hospital, and some don’t, I can see that surviving is a wonderful thing. Though it isn’t necessarily the same as thriving and the struggles for Gypsy and Traveller people go on. Invisible as such crises often are, they play on out of sight and mind.

And so to the Covid-19 Coronavirus. How suddenly we all remember that being left without the most basic of needs being met will leave us struggling to thrive. Water; shelter; food; income; stability and predictability; safety, and all the things that amount to social inclusion. Our Gypsy and Traveller members came into this crisis living on roadsides, vilified, threatened, and without basic provision. Others subsisting on overcrowded and poorly services public sites, obliged to pay out proportions of their income on rents and utility bills such to make a middle-class professional in London wince.  Having been disregarded and excluded from healthcare over decades (not just the last few years of austerity), whilst most people’s lives have become longer and healthier, for our Gypsies and Travellers it has stayed static or gone down. Provision of care within the family was already at least 50% greater than other communities, long before Covid-19 came along.

“The public aren’t hearing the stories of Gypsy and Traveller people during this time”

The public aren’t hearing the stories of Gypsy and Traveller people during this time, so let me tell you, from my unique and privileged point of view how it is.  In the depths of the Covid-19 lockdown, police and council officials are finding time to force Gypsy and Traveller people to move from camp to camp.  One of many consequences of this, and decades of public policy failure to provide sufficient permanent sites, is that whatever public sites are available are desperately overcrowded such that ‘you can’t fit a fag paper between the trailers’.  The consequences of this for fire safety, let alone in attempts to ‘cocoon’ and isolate our many older or health impaired people is just a powder keg waiting to go off.

Having the police or local authorities officers turn up and suggest you move is just the most obvious issue. Not having water is really serious. Or heating, unless you also use bottled gas at home you might not realise that it is proving impossible to come by as all the suppliers have shut for the duration.  Lots of little babies needing a warm bottle, I know of an elderly man who is battling cancer and dealing with a stoma and ‘bag’. He is living on a privately owned but unauthorised site. His local authority think he should move now. There is no water supply to the site, the council officer brought him a couple of litre bottles.

Over a month ago Leeds GATE initiated a national campaign #negotiatedstopping to stop Gypsies and Travellers from being moved, for their own welfare and that of surrounding communities, during the crisis.  The police were moved by our arguments to issue direction to their officers not to be part of moving on roadside camps.

I heard this morning that the government has finally issued instructions to Local Authorities in respect of how they should be treating Gypsy and Traveller members of their communities during the crisis.  It’s been a long time coming and is not as strong as I would have liked but it does at least make clear that families need somewhere to stay during the lockdown, with basic services such as water, hygiene facilities and waste disposal.  You wouldn’t think it would take an instruction from the government, to point this out. And yet I also heard this morning of at least two authorities in England that are pursuing evictions.

But once again we have reason to be proud to be based in Leeds.  Our Council, in partnership with ourselves and the local Clinical Commissioning Group have ensured that local Travelling families are either on site, or on a negotiated stopping camp where they can stay for the duration, I won’t say it has been easy but the authority has arranged that everyone has access to showers, water and waste disposal. Others authorities now have their instructions from the Government and no excuses.

At this time when we have such good reason to be proud of our communities, of our empathy and support for one another, please let’s make sure that includes everyone.

About the Author

Helen Jones is the CEO of Leeds Gypsy and Traveller Exchange which is a West Yorkshire based membership organisation for Gypsy and Traveller people established in 2003. Leeds GATE offers one to one support and development activities for our members as well as raising awareness of the needs and assets of the communities.  www.leedsgate.co.uk/

@LeedsGATE @HxNell

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