Opinion UK

Coronavirus in Cornwall: Stay away from second homes

As someone who can oft be heard complaining about the microcosm environment that Oxford and its colleges can create, it’s not very surprising that I’ve been finding being trapped in one house with the same four people a bit of a challenge. But I can’t help but reflect on how different other people’s experience of this lockdown may be and how our varying degrees of privilege contribute to it. Personally, I feel very privileged to live in the countryside, with a garden, a reasonably spacious house and a good WiFi connection to keep me well nourished with Netflix. This is a privileged experience and not one that everybody can relate to. Our experiences during this pandemic will vary widely across counties, countries, and continents. Perhaps this is why so many people have decided not to stay at home but travel to somewhere they believe will be safer. This is completely understandable for those who are truly not safe at their “home” for a variety of reasons (e.g. domestic abuse). On the other hand, people who travel elsewhere from a home that is safe just so that they might have an easier experience are doing so from an immensely privileged position and one that puts people at risk.

I live in Cornwall, and local communities here have complaints about second-home owners in the best of times. The local reaction to the floods of second-home owners and holiday makers arriving here to lay low and wait out the pandemic has been (unsurprisingly) more visceral than in usual circumstances. I can understand why second-home owners might think this is a good idea. Cornwall more than likely seems like an idyllic place in which to self-isolate; it’s beautiful, spacious, has lots of walks, and has a low population density (less chance of catching the virus). However, behind the postcard scenes, Cornwall has a lot of issues and to not take these into account before you rush down here puts the local population at risk. 

There are some key things that you should know about Cornwall before you consider making it your safe haven. Firstly, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly have the lowest GDP per head in the whole of England and wages that are 80% of the national average. Only recently, in September 2019, Cornwall was ranked 83rd out of 317 local authority areas for deprivation. The link between socio-economic background and the likelihood of catching Covid-19 is being seen for reasons more complex than I am able to explain fully in this article. To put it simply, those who are from lower socio-economic backgrounds tend to have jobs that do not allow them to work from home and thus they are more frequently exposed to other people.

In the context of a pandemic, the most important thing to remember about Cornwall is that it has only one hospital. The Royal Cornwall Hospital is under a huge amount of pressure, only being taken out of special measures in the last few weeks. In a normal time, Cornwall only has 15 ITU beds and receives lower per capita NHS funding than the rest of the south east. It is clear that Cornwall is less equipped to handle a pandemic than most places in the UK. These issues are important to remember when considering the local reaction to second home owners. Funding in the NHS is partly based on the per head number of patients that GP surgeries in the area have but, as second home owners are only here for a very short time, they (usually) do not sign up to the local GPs. This means they use local services without contributing any funding to the area. Local residents are completely within their rights to be worried about the impact of these second-home owners and holidaymakers on our already stretched resources.

It is easy for issues like this to go unnoticed but it seems to have been brought to the attention of wider audience through inconsiderate celebrities. As the pandemic grows people seem to be becoming increasingly less tolerant of celebrities’ most recent displays of ignorance and self-importance. In Cornwall, Gordon Ramsay has faced criticism for fleeing London to lockdown in his £4 million Trebetherick mansion. To put that into perspective, the average house price in Cornwall is £268,964, so… quite a difference. Angry neighbours and members of a Facebook group called ‘You Shouldn’t Be Here’ have promised they will leak Ramsay’s address unless he leaves the county. One member of the group commented that “the big shit should take himself and his family the hell out of Cornwall.” I can’t say I disagree.

Ramsay and other second-home owners have come to Cornwall despite an MP’s plea for them to stay away and despite threats from police that you can be turned away, fined, and even arrested. Of course, Cornwall is not the only place caught in these disputes. Dorset, an area with one of the highest percentages of second homes, has also been flooded with arrivals and, this week, residents in the Lake District have blocked motorhomes from arriving. Even those implementing the lockdown have broken their own rules: Scotland’s chief medical officer has resigned after it was revealed that she left lockdown to visit her second home not once, but twice. 

Problems that have been heightened in the pandemic have always been there. It says a lot about us as a country that some have the choice between one home and another while others have no choice at all. The disconnect in people’s understanding (particularly those of the privileged few) of others’s experiences has been made clearer than ever. The thing is Cornwall, and places like it, are not bunkers to wait out the apocalypse. They’re not just a holiday location or where you sometimes spend a few weeks of the year. They are a real home to many people; we live, work and grow up here. To treat it as anything else shows a profound level of disrespect. Come to Cornwall, sure -the local economy relies on tourism – but not right now. For the moment, just stay at home…your real home.