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A woman walking along the Thames path near City Hall in London today.
A woman walking along the Thames path near City Hall in London today.
Image: Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images

'Many of us are staying here to avoid infecting our family at home': Irish people in London amid the coronavirus crisis

Irish people in London describe the mood in the city, which is now facing a major lockdown to tackle coronavirus.
Mar 24th 2020, 4:16 PM 25,202 10

FOR WEEKS, IRISH people have been looking over to the UK with confusion. From talk of herd immunity to an apparently slow approach to closing schools, the country’s response to the spread of Covid-19 has raised many questions. 

It’s been a difficult time for Irish people living in the UK, especially in London – the epicentre of the outbreak there. Back home, drastic decisions were being taken and social distancing was becoming normalised, while in the UK it appeared that little had changed. 

Last night, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the country would be going into effective lockdown. People will only be allowed to leave their home for very limited purposes including shopping for basic necessities, medical needs, one form of exercise a day and travelling to work only when absolutely necessary.

As for the Irish in London, some have come home, while others have decided to stay put. Several spoke to TheJournal.ie about what it’s like in the city:

Laura, a filmmaker living in London

We’re both Irish, living in London for 15 years, with a six-year-old son. I was watching the situation at home, so took our son out of school a week before Boris made his announcement.

We felt the school shut down was imminent but it seemed Johnson was incapable of making a decision so we decided it was the right thing to do. The clear difference between communication from the government in Ireland and here is the complete lack of clarity and a half-assed approach which has left people confused and unsure how to react. The announcement last night did come as a bit of a shock, though, as it was the first decisive move by the government here.

Shortly after, I went to go to our local Sainsbury’s and it was closed. I have heard today that there is a one-in-one-out policy, so I’m steering clear until things calm.  We’re currently renovating our house and have no drinking water, so that’s going to be a challenge, but we are luckier than most with a roof over our heads and hopefully can just wait it out.

Feeling very homesick away from family and friends, however, I don’t think it matters where you are in the world right now once you can try and stay away from others and avoid it.

At the weekend parks and public spaces were rammed and we heard of people headed outside London to the coasts. I think everyone in this city needed a sharp shock like last night’s announcement and I welcome it. 

The enforcement side of things would be a concern for me. London is so densely populated and really, this move by Boris is relying a lot on public buy-in. I was thinking last night about the London riots a few years ago and how quickly everything got out of control and areas shut up shop, you just have to hope that the authorities are prepared for something like that and that people will come together.

Despite its size, there is a community in Walthamstow where we live that are being pro-active in helping those that need it. For me personally, I haven’t been to work or on the tube for two weeks, only because I was following the statistics and what was happening in Ireland and the rest of Europe. 

From now on, we’re here trying to home school our son, he’s currently sitting on the floor under the table here watching ‘Boss Baby’! We will try to go with the “child-led” learning once I figure out what that is. Let’s hope we can all survive this and get back home when it’s all over with a renewed appreciation and approach to life.

Philip Meehan, a teacher from Dublin

My situation is I’m over here in the UK and my sister moved here a few years ago. She works at an NHS hospital. My first instinct was to go home to Ireland. They have sent home nearly all the staff in the school in which I work.

I could have gone home, but with my sister over here, I wanted to stay here in case she needed to self-isolate. It’s weird. You feel very homesick. If you think about it, Ireland is safer. There is a sense here though that the UK has bungled its response to it.

I’m not the only Irish member of staff in the school here and we were thinking “the schools were closed in Ireland, so they must be closing them here in the UK”. It feels very watered down here to how it was in Ireland.

A friend works in a bar and he said that they had a record night on Friday. Then you open up Irish Twitter in outrage and you see footage shared of all the people dancing around in Temple Bar. There is a real contrast here. We’re certainly behind that kind of social reaction to people going out.

Kathleen McNamee, a journalist from Sligo

I left London last Monday and it was a very last-minute decision. I booked my flights at 9 pm on Sunday evening and I was gone by 6.45 pm on Monday evening.

I decided to leave because I could just see what was being said in Ireland and also in England in the media, what the governments were saying, and my parents were very eager for me to come home.

I think I didn’t really understand, even though I was seeing all the information. I don’t think it hit me how serious it was until I got back home to Ireland. It was just the minute you arrived were just aware there was something unusual happening, whereas life was kind of normal in London.

At that stage, I was working from home. But again, it was an optional thing. Work had said you can work from home or you come into the office. And I just took the decision to work from home.

In shops, the only thing that was kind of unusual was that pasta would be the only product sold out. It was really hard to train your brain to realise how serious the issue was.

I didn’t feel particularly safe and I didn’t feel at all reassured by the government and what they were doing. I remember watching Boris Johnson’s first speech on the whole issue and being utterly perplexed at the line he was taking.

The stuff about herd immunity was completely against anything I had heard anywhere else. I was the first among all my friends to take the leap and get out of here. But very quickly, people followed in the next few days.

Flying out of Gatwick, it was eerie. The airport was kind of empty, there weren’t that many people chatting or talking. There were absolutely no precautions being taken. I saw a few airline staff with gloves but that was about it.

It was a totally different vibe here. There, it was ‘something that was happening far away, it doesn’t affect us’. 

coronavirus Cyclists ride across an empty Westminster Bridge in front of the Houses of Parliament. Source: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

Corrina Kavanagh, an audience development manager from Tipperary

I’ve been in London for nearly six years now, and I’ve never felt further from home. I live with my boyfriend here, he’s also Irish. Like many other Irish here, we have been consuming both Irish and British media every day and honestly it’s been really confusing for us going between the two.

When everything got really serious back home and new measures were brought in, I was still getting on packed tubes every morning and evening. Luckily, my employer made the decision early on to implement working from home across the company, well before the government here advised to. So I’ve been pretty much following the recommended HSE measures for the past 12 days and I definitely feel much more comfortable with that.

My boyfriend is in the construction industry, which really only started to come to a halt today after Boris Johnson’s address last night because builder’s merchants and suppliers have started to close. There is a lot of confusion, sites are technically still open. But as he has his own business, he has been able to make the decision to stay at home. It may not be so easy for others.

We have been toying with the idea of going home for a few days but both feel it may be irresponsible. I have family members to think of back home who have underlying health conditions and who are recently out of hospital themselves, so I’d rather not put them at risk. Actually, my uncle passed away at home during the pandemic (of other causes) and I watched the funeral service online. It was so odd seeing them practice social distancing in the church, while everything seemed so normal here in London. The parks and commons have been heaving every day.

A lot of my Irish friends here are in a similar situation and have decided to stay put to protect our families. Some are also teachers and nurses working on the front line, one nurse friend, in particular, had to cancel her wedding at home and is working through the pandemic.

While we’re glad to see some stricter measures come in last night, it definitely makes us feel even further away from family and friends. I would much rather be in Ireland now but I’m looking forward to planning my next trip home, and I’m going to make it a long one.

Carla King Molina, an account executive from Galway

After this weekend, it was clear we would have to do a lockdown. Even just walking to the supermarket, there were so many people on the street not practising social distancing. Markets were full, parks were crazy which was all pretty shocking. I think a lot of people are going back home if they can.

It’s really scary. I have obviously decided to stay in London. I live with my boyfriend, so I think that changes the dynamic. If I was in a flat-share and just had a room and was by myself, I probably would have flown to Ireland by now. It just feels like there is a better handle on things and people are taking it more seriously.

I rarely leave the house. We got a big food delivery and I think we’re good for the next while. 

coronavirus Clapham Common in London. Source: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images

Niamh Walsh, a parliamentary affairs officer from Meath

I’m 26 and have been in London for two years now. I work for a small charity in politics and moved over for work. My office is in Westminster and I live in Cricklewood in north west London. I live in a house share with four other Irish girls and one of their boyfriends is currently staying here between places.

My office closed last Tuesday as we didn’t feel comfortable travelling in on the tube in the morning and potentially spreading it. We are technically working from home at the moment but as my job involves organising visits for MPs there isn’t much to do. We are doing daily Zoom calls but it’s more a social check-in to make sure everyone is okay.

I actually feel quite calm about the lockdown. Since the office closed a week ago, I haven’t left my neighbourhood. I’ve been going for daily walks in the park beside my house which thankfully hasn’t been too crowded. I hope people don’t abuse the exercise allowance because I have found it a really useful coping mechanism. I think there was a sense that the lockdown was inevitable so I’m kind of glad to have clearer messaging on what we can and can’t do. I really hope people stick to it.

Previously when I went to the shops, no one was making any effort to stay apart from people. You would have couples walking and split and walk either side of you. Completely missing the point.

I think like a lot of other Irish emigrants I have found the difference in messaging between the Irish and British governments quite difficult. In particular, I found the weekend of 14 March very hard because half of the media and my social media timelines said to stay inside and use social distancing, but then the only message here was to wash your hands.

My housemates still went out clubbing that weekend. It was like living in a weird bubble of alternative reality. I was following the advice about avoiding people and unnecessary outings but no one around me us. I have found it much easier since the messaging here changed and was more similar to the messaging at home.

I was actually supposed to be home last weekend for a normal weekend at home but I rebooked my flights until July. I briefly considered going home but thought I could better maintain a routine here. I tend to revert to being a lazy teenager at home and didn’t think that could be great long term.

I’m from rural Meath so the internet is pretty rubbish as well. My brother is at home with my parents so I know that they are all fine. Half of my house have left and that made me think perhaps I was missing something and should go. But my mum is a nurse and agreed that I was as safe here and shouldn’t travel through airports potentially spreading it.

Considering I normally follow the news pretty closely and listen to a lot of political podcasts, I’ve tried to cut back because I’ve found it a bit overwhelming. Too much just makes me a bit anxious. I try to check in a couple of times a day with news organisations like the BBC, RTÉ and Channel 4 News. I also try to put away my phone before bed so it doesn’t impact my sleep. I think the government messaging here has been a mess and fuelled confusion.

It’s remarkable to think that in little over a week the policy has gone from wash your hands to lockdown. From the outside anyway, I think the Irish government and media seem to be much more coherent.

Imogen Kavanagh, a Sotheby’s intern from Tipperary

I think over the last few days there were definitely fewer people on the streets but people were treating it like a normal weekend. I was in Battersea Park yesterday and there were groups of people sitting on the grass having lunch and walking around together.

Comparing that to Dublin, where my friends say they haven’t seen anyone but their flatmates in over a week, it seems really strange that the message isn’t getting through to people.

I think the scariest thing for me so far has been receiving messages from family and friends telling me to come home because London is only going to get worse, when I see people going about their normal lives here.

At the same time, my local supermarket in Pimlico has hardly any food – there’s been no “staples” for over a week now. I think there’s lots of conflicting reactions and the next few days will really say a lot as to what extent Londoners are actually going to comply with regulations, and how far the UK government will go in order to enforce them. 

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