This is the second installment of Postcards From Lockdown, a Telegraph series that looks at how communities across Britain are coping during the coronavirus pandemic. The first postcard was from Eastbourne.
Return tomorrow to read Joe Shute’s postcard from Essex
A beautiful spring day and Lake Windermere is eerily still, save the single wake of a 440-horsepower rib coursing through the vast expanse of water. At the helm is Steve Phelps, a lake warden employed by South Lakeland District Council, accompanied by two Cumbria Police officers wearing protective masks.
With the length of the 10-mile lake closed to all boats during the lockdown, they are checking the moored yachts to see if any owners have attempted to sneak on board. A week or so ago, Phelps says, he came across one such case – a boat owner who by means of explanation said that “it was a beautiful place to self-isolate”. After some gentle persuasion, the stowaway eventually agreed to return to shore and wait out the rest of the lockdown outside of the Lake District.
In the run up to the Easter weekend, the officers of Cumbria Police have been having similar conversations right across the national park. On Thursday they turned away two canoeists from Yorkshire who had been pulled over by road traffic officers; the day before that, a family of six from Leigh, Lancashire, were stopped outside of Windermere and escorted back to the M6. Another incident involved a family who had driven all the way up from Devon to holiday in the national park.
The message could not be clearer: the Lake District is shut for business. But still people continue to attempt to evade the lockdown.
Police forces covering tourist hotspots across the country are taking similar action over the Easter weekend. In Devon and Cornwall – where second home owners have been accused of sneaking in under cover of darkness – police roadblocks have been established to ensure holidaymakers stay away.
Michelle Skeer, the chief constable of Cumbria Police, says the intention has been to appeal to people’s social conscience rather than punish them, though her officers have been forced to issue a few fixed penalty notices to persistent offenders.
Skeer, who comes from the county, admits she never could have imagined giving such orders to her officers to empty the Lake District – England’s most visited national park, which usually receives in excess of 20m visitors a year and is typically buzzing over the Easter weekend.
“It’s really sad because we have never seen our lakes so quiet,” she says. “We will welcome people back after this, but for now it is essential people stay away in order to save lives.”
For a county with a widely dispersed population of 500,000 or so residents, Cumbria has been hit disproportionately hard by Covid-19. On Thursday, two of Cumbria’s hospital trusts reported another nine deaths over the previous 24 hours, taking the total to 134. With more than 500 known cases among the population, the proportion of people affected here ranks among the highest in England.
Such is the feared impact of coronavirus on Cumbria that the Army has been called in to convert four council leisure centres and a school into field hospitals, to free up space in existing hospitals.
Many Cumbrian residents believe tourists who flooded in before the lockdown was announced, were responsible for the spike in cases. Aside from the police public awareness campaign, some locals are also resorting to vigilante action to keep people away.
In one such incident of mistaken identity this week, a nurse who is working in the area and self-isolating in a friend’s holiday home near Windermere to avoid infecting her family, woke up to find the tyres on her car slashed and unable to drive to her shift.
According to police, in Coniston a visitor’s car has been daubed with ‘Go Home’. There have also been “vitriolic comments” online towards some bed and breakfast owners suspected of trying to let out their properties. Meanwhile police are receiving daily reports of suspected sightings of outsiders.
Inspector Jo Fawcett, of Cumbria Police, says that while such zealous community action is assisting the police in their endeavours, there is a risk of escalation if people try to take matters into their own hands.
“There are a lot of good well-meaning people trying to do their bit,” she says. “And there are some who may be thinking they are trying to do the same, but actually getting the wrong end of the stick.”
The police crackdown has been launched in conjunction with Cumbria Tourism (the country tourist board) and supported by the Friends of the Lake District. With visitors so vital to the economy of the area, it is being done with a heavy heart. According to Cumbria Tourism, revenue generated by visitors would normally be £1.36bn between March and July alone, and as across the rest of the country, there are grave fears of the impact of the lockdown on the area – even if people accept it is essential.
Douglas Chalmers, the 61 year-old chief executive of Friends of the Lake District and a part- time sheep farmer, likens the impact on the economy to the Foot and Mouth crisis of 2001 – which hit Cumbria particularly hard. “That was a period I hoped to never live through again and we’re in a similar one now,” he says.
Chalmers adds that several friends have suffered Covid-like symptoms in recent weeks and believes the Government needs to do far more to ramp up testing to get a handle on cases. “Nobody knows if the virus is here,” he says.
Alongside road patrols, Cumbria Police officers have also been going door-to-door between local bed and breakfasts and holiday lets to check they are following the Government guidelines and not taking in guests. There has been anger at the lettings website Airbnb for apparently continuing to advertise rooms, but on Thursday the company released a statement insisting that temporary blocks will be applied in calendars for new UK bookings that start on or before April 18.
Debra and Alan Hutter own a bed and breakfast in the village of Bowness and on Thursday were visited by the police. The pair closed the day of the lockdown but have their suspicions about another nearby business. They also continue to spot tourists in the local Co-op supermarket and sporty cars which they don’t recognise parked in town. “We have got the infrastructure for 500,000 people but when we get the people with second homes and tourists coming into our area they are bringing in their problems [too],” Alan says.
Another bed and breakfast owner to have been visited by police this week is Steve Barton, 54, whose wife Jackie is still recovering from a probable case of Covid-19. The 59-year-old fell ill a fortnight ago and suspects she caught the disease from their final guests who stayed before the lockdown was imposed.
Since then, says Steve, who fortunately has not developed any symptoms himself, she has been desperately sick: “She had real difficulty breathing,” he says. “It was horrendous but she didn’t want to go to the hospital. I have never seen her that ill.”
During her recovery, Jackie decided to post a video on social media describing the horror of the illness, which has since been shared thousands of times. She has done so, Steve says, for one simple reason: “she wanted to say to people ‘do not come up here’.”