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'The less decisive the government is, the less sure we are': Irish in England react to change in restrictions

We spoke to men and women in the wake of the latest change in restrictions for the country.

Image: Shutterstock/Michael Tubi

TODAY SHOULD SEE a slight relaxation of coronavirus restrictions in the UK – but some Irish people living there have told TheJournal.ie that the messaging from the government has been confusing.

The new restrictions were introduced by Boris Johnson in a televised address to the country on Sunday night. Johnson said that schools and some shops in England might be able to open in June if the conditions were right. He also said that it was not the time to end the restrictions – which came into place on 23 March – and that he would take a ‘cautious approach’ going forward. 

Johnson said people who cannot work from home should be “actively encouraged” to return to their jobs, and he granted unlimited exercise in England from today.

People will also be allowed to sunbathe or chat in parks with one other person from a different household as long as two-metre distancing is maintained.

However, Johnson’s statement was met with some confusion and criticism, as reflected on the front pages yesterday morning. 

In addition, when Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab appeared on BBC Radio 4 yesterday morning, there was some slight divergence from what Johnson said. 

Irish people living in the UK spoke to TheJournal.ie about how they feel about the latest changes in the restrictions, and how life has been since the first announcement in March. Due to concerns regarding their employment, most spoke on condition of anonymity.

‘Loose and confusing’

Freelance writer Joanna*, who is living in England, told TheJournal.ie that the message from Boris Johnson last night felt “strategically loose and confusing”.

“[The government] seem to just want the public to take their own measures so the public can essentially be the ones responsible. I feel the government have made such bad calls all along that it feels like they’re putting it back into the public’s hands so that they are free of all blame – that’s how it feels,” she said. 

“It seems like a lot of the minority communities are being affected. People aren’t being told what the R1 number means, instead Boris is talking about cycling to work. I think if he was a lot more honest and open about the effects it would be good, because there are a lot of people in the north of England who would have voted for him, would have listened to him and he is not telling them about what R1 means and about the infection rates.”

“They’re shielding people from the truth and it’s the truth that will keep people indoors.” 

‘Social distancing hasn’t reached the far corners of the UK’

An Irish woman who has worked for the NHS for almost a decade told TheJournal.ie about her experience in the ITU (intensive therapy unit) and what she thought of the latest changes to restrictions.

“It’s certainly levelled off right now, but the kind of care we’re giving at the moment is rehab – weaning off ventilators, which is tough. Sometimes people go three to four weeks on a ventilator, and you start weaning them and it’s a no-go. [The tough part is ] the hope the family have for their loved one for that 3-4 weeks.”

She said that there is no typical Covid-19 patient, but that in the ITU at her hospital they have seen a lot of patients with Covid-19 who develop clots, pulmonary embolism in their lungs, or deep-vein thrombosis. 

“It’s a massive feature and we don’t know why,” she said. They have also seen a “huge incidence” of Covid-19 within the BAME (Black, Asian, minority ethnic) community, but again there has been no conclusion on why this is the case.

She said that she doesn’t think people realise how difficult the ITU is for patients: “It’s painful, and it’s loud and it’s messy, and you can’t even come visit at the moment.”

“We have iPads set up with family members so if it’s appropriate we can video call,” she said. Conversations can be made more difficult by the fact she has to wear PPE, including a mask and visor, and often her patients’ first language is not English. 

“Every single person in the hospital is looking after the patient like it’s their mum or dad. I always reassure people with that,” she said. 

With regard to the recent advice from Boris Johnson, the NHS worker said that it was initially unclear to her what he was suggesting, but she understands the motivation in trying to reopen the country. “I can see where he is coming from – he doesn’t want the economy to fall apart and I can understand that. But there was a bank holiday on Friday and there is going to be a huge spike [in Covid-19 diagnoses] because people were out having barbecues.”

“What you can see is this hasn’t reached the far corners of the UK,” she added of the social distancing guidelines.  

She said that people might feel there are exceptions to the rules in place, when there are not. “I hope people will be sensible but people need rules and they need to be told what to do, and what they can and can’t do,” she said.

“What we are really nervous about in work is when the really precious 80+ year olds come out of cocooning because they’re safe wrapped up in their house at the minute,” she added. “Until we get a vaccine – I love vaccines – this isn’t going away.”

She said that the work is tough, but “it’s what I signed up for, isn’t it. I’ve gotten better at switching off. Most nights I cry when I walk home, but then I leave it at my front door”.

Her message to people is: “Just stay indoors.”

‘It feels like a different world’

Steve, an Irishman who lives in London, said that he has been following the Irish news “and it feels like a different world here in England”. He said that compared to the reports he has seen about countries like Ireland, Spain or Italy, it hasn’t felt too restrictive in London.

However, he said that his experience in central London has been different to his friends who live in the more suburban areas.

“The parks have been packed (the good weather has obviously influenced that) and for the past two weekends, people were sitting out, enjoying cans in the sunshine. For the most part, people were distanced from each other but it didn’t look like a lockdown,” he said.

“Most of the cafes and restaurants on the high street have adapted to takeaway options – so you can get your morning coffee and croissant (and you have your pick of about five cafes in a 200m stretch). ”

“I’ve avoided public transport and walked to the shops,” he said. With regard to the latest guidance, he said he “didn’t think it was clear at all”.

“Last week I knew that we should stay at home, work from home where possible, only go outside for exercise or to get essentials and not to take unnecessary journeys,” he said.

“Today I can be outside for as long as I like, go to work but not via public transport. Currently I’m trying to work out if I’m allowed to meet with people from outside my household – Raab seems to indicate that is OK outdoors at 2m apart, but I didn’t hear that in Boris’ statement last night.”

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‘The less decisive they are the less sure we are’ 

“It was very unclear to be honest,” said retail manager Frank* of Boris Johnson’s statement. “What he did say, there wasn’t much clarity on what people could or couldn’t do. Even just chatting amongst friends afterwards, everyone was trying to make sense after it – which everyone was agreeing was the last thing you should be doing after a statement from the government.”

“We keep comparing it to Ireland and the response back home was so much more definite and it gave everyone more ease and peace of mind about what they could and couldn’t do, whereas here it was so vague.”

“Also everything he did say, like we could for example meet a friend in a park – I live in central London and that’s happening already. From what I hear back home you can’t drive down the street twice without being stopped by gardaí.”

He said that there was “more confusion” when Dominic Raab spoke on Radio 4. 

Frank also said that when the initial restrictions came in, there was some confusion but “people have got used to the new normal now and it’s calming down”.

“There was a lot of confusion over herd immunity and then the next day after the announcement there didn’t seem a massive change over people’s behaviours so that added to the uncertainty.”

He said that those who break the social distancing rules are “a very small minority”.

“If I’m going into a shop myself, I see that people are queuing up outside. There is definitely an acceptance from the public that this is what we have to do. It’s just the guidance from the government advice is slightly confusing. The less decisive they are the less sure we are of the actions. From what you’re seeing we’re allowed leave to go exercising but the parks are busy, there are people sitting around in groups.”

With regard to retail, he said: “There’s measures put in place from a morale perspective [for the staff].  People are just getting on with it and people are just happy to have jobs.”

When Ireland announced its restrictions, he said that “it was nice to look at Ireland and say at least they’re doing the right thing”. 

‘A good idea, poorly executed’

Another Irishman, Shane, who lives in London, said: “There is a tendency from Boris to dance around the facts and delivering clear, concise guidelines and his address on Sunday was no different, I felt.”

“At certain moments it seemed as if he was reading from a novel or a creative writing piece, through his use of terms such as ‘devilish illness’, it seems odd and taking from the seriousness of the situation,” he told TheJournal.ie.

I thought the use of charts and graphs was actually headed in the right direction, a good idea, but poorly executed. The traffic light system presented seemed like it was going somewhere too, and if it became a go to indicator for specific levels of quarantine, featured in newspapers and the wider media, that could be really useful. But is it going to? I honestly don’t know.

Meanwhile, Niall told us that he considered the announcement “really misleading”.

“If you weren’t able to look at the numbers, it would be easy to assume that the rate of, and active number of infections have drastically decreased, but they haven’t,” he said.

“Also the ambiguity of it was worrying and makes it difficult for me to think that there isn’t something more sinister going on. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were trying to pursue the herd immunity pipe dream all along, especially considering how short the lockdown was here effectively. Or else they’re taking a huge gamble on a vaccine being available soon, or something. Total negligence.”

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