Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s family home of Exmoor is experiencing a “tourism” boom after the Prime Minister announced that schools were closing on Friday. Exmoor National Park has experienced a huge influx of people since the announcement was made. As well as second homers returning for the “duration of the virus”, holiday cottages and caravan parks are filling up with long term bookings. One holiday cottage was booked over the phone for three months with the family travelling down from London immediately and arriving at 3am! The Caravan Club Site in Dulverton is currently full to the brim. Lucy Naylor of West Somerset Labour looks at what can be done.
A small town of approximately 1000 people, is struggling with the influx of people. A stunningly beautiful town, mentioned in the Domesday Book and now home of Exmoor National Park Authority, Dulverton is a busy town, where visitors receive a warm welcome in the cafes, pubs, galleries and small independent shops. Dulverton is the also the main community hub for Exmoor. Doctors, vets, garage, post office, library, hairdressers and beauticians sit alongside a small Co-op branch, local greengrocers and butchers. The small community has been rallying around and working hard to build a strong support network. The local Good Neighbours Scheme (supported by The Community Council for Somerset) has been working with a Facebook CoronaVirus Community Support Group organising volunteers and planning support for the vulnerable members of the community, many of whom are required to self isolate very soon.
Hub of Positivity
As well as helping volunteers organise dog walks, vets visits, reassuring distant relatives and resolving emergency toilet roll problems the Facebook group has become a hub of positivity; focusing on supporting local businesses, linking activities for social isolation and promoting mental health support. While experiencing some shortages the shops have managed to do incredibly well and keep well stocked, certainly better than the major supermarkets in the bigger towns “nearby”, by which we mean 20-30 miles away!
This weekend the pressure reached critical. Shops reported panic bulk buying and significant levels of aggression and rudeness from customers! More worryingly is the lack of social distancing. Vulnerable shoppers and their carers visiting the chemist and picking up fresh bottled milk were met with full car parking places, streets busier than high season and crowd pressure. This has increased anxiety in the community on many levels. As a community with a significant proportion of elderly residents, and also their carers, Dulverton, and the wider area of Exmoor, is deeply vulnerable. With their small medical centre just taken over by a large consortium and the nearest critical care units over an hours drive (or air ambulance flight) away, the community are acutely aware of their fragile situation. With the closure of pubs and cafés and loss of revenue many locals are also worried about their own food security and income, especially with the long distances to travel to already overburdened supermarkets elsewhere.
So what can be done? Not a lot it would seem. Obviously we can hope that visitors would at least respect the Government’s social distancing recommendations and protect themselves and others. On a wider level, “Virus tourism” has not been covered by Government legislation and guidance….as yet! In such uncertain times who can blame a local holiday cottage owner accepting a lucrative booking at a normally quiet time?
With no Legislation in place who can blame people paralysed by fear and panic from fleeing cities to places they perceive as safe? Notoriously quiet local MP Ian Liddell-Grainger (known locally as Idle Stranger) has even been stirred into action. Successful in his work to ensure Minehead Butlins’ short term closure Ian met with less success with the Caravan Club. Their response to him shows that the reckless pursuit of profit has outweighed their care for their members as well as the communities that their sites are based on. As panic rises across the country how will the Government seek to protect its citizens from their own worst behaviour? After closing pubs and cafés surely the next step is to shut down “tourism”?
With the NHS in cities under huge strain how will the Government prevent that passing to the poorer funded regions? How will the Government support their predominantly elderly rural communities? Communities that the country is also relying on for farming and carers? In a time of National Crisis there are a lot more problems for Boris Johnson to consider “back home” than the just the closure of his father, Stanley’s beloved local !
This lunchtime, The Caravan Club bowed to pressure and officially closed their sites until 30th June. After days of irresponsibly defending their promotion of tourism because it didn’t break any Government guidelines they have finally seen sense. Now we just have to hope that other tourism providers follow suit. Or maybe just stop the tourists in the first place?