Gypsies and Travellers in England left without water during lockdown

Jessica Murray
Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

Gypsy and Traveller communities around the country have been left without water and sanitation facilities during the coronavirus lockdown, prompting concern from politicians and charities.

Families in England have no access to sanitation, refuse collection, or water for drinking, cooking, showering and washing clothes, the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma (GRT) said in a letter to the Local Government Association.

Some local authorities have directed vulnerable Travellers to uncleaned public toilets with no hand-washing facilities, the letter said, while others are attempting to evict camps. It stressed that these basic facilities were needed for communities to physically distance, self-isolate and follow guidelines on hand washing and hygiene.

One Irish Traveller, Catherine*, who lives with her sister and two children, aged 12 and two, in south-east England, moved from an overcrowded site because she was worried about the risk of catching the virus from others.

The family are now on public land outside a transit site closed due to Covid-19, and are struggling to access water and toilet facilities.

“There’s no other families on there, so we could use it to isolate, but the local authority won’t let us. We have to drive to get to the water, and the toilets close at 6pm. We’re usually fine with a public toilet, we’ve used them hundreds of times before, but we don’t want to risk infection,” she said.

“We’re worried about not having water for the kids now it’s getting warmer.  It feels very depressing, we’ve got no toilet, no nothing. We can’t drive anywhere, because we don’t have anywhere to go. It feels like they just don’t care about us.”

The issues mainly affect those living on canals and waterways, or roadsides in unauthorised encampments, which national charity Friends, Families and Travellers (FFT) estimates to be around 25,000 people. Many are struggling to get support from councils already overstretched as a result of the Covid-19 response.

“You can get stuck in bureaucratic processes, which obviously, if you’re sitting next to a water butt that is emptying out as you drink and you wash your hands and cook dinner, then that can be quite stressful,” said Sarah Sweeney, FFT policy and communications manager.

“Some of the conditions that are more prevalent in Gypsy and Traveller communities include things like asthma and COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease], so those hand in hand create a perfect storm in terms of the impact [Covid-19] could have on Gypsies and Travellers.”

Travellers on unauthorised sites often struggle with water and sanitation facilities, but the closure of leisure centres, churches and petrol station toilets, which are often used for water supply, as well as recycling centres, has exacerbated the situation.

FFT stressed that the majority of people on unauthorised encampments would prefer to be on a site, but are unable to do so because of a chronic shortage of pitches caused by the failure by local authorities to identify land in local plans where Travellers can stop.

Alison Blackwood, manager of Southwark Traveller Action Group, has been involved in getting a water stand pipe set up at a Traveller site in Hertfordshire, which had no access to running water.

“It does seem in this day and age, and in the middle of a crisis like this, that for some people not to have access to running water is quite shocking,” she said.

In April the communities minister, Stephen Greenhalgh, wrote to all local authorities highlighting the vulnerability of Travellers during the pandemic. “Some Gypsies and Travellers are particularly vulnerable and have the potential to be disproportionally impacted by Covid-19, and some will already have been asked to shield for 12 weeks due to high-risk underlying health conditions,” he said.

Kate Green, the Labour MP for Stretford and Urmston and co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for GRT, said: “Travellers are a group protected under equality law, and they are entitled to expect that public protection measures that are applying to the settled community are working effectively, with any necessary adaptations, for them too.”

The letter to the LGA noted that some local authorities, including Leeds and Bristol city councils, have taken action to support Traveller communities during the lockdown.

Bristol city council has set up temporary sites with safely distanced pitches for the GRT community and vehicle dwellers, with shared facilities disinfected on a daily basis. A council spokesperson said the local authority was working with the GRT community to “ensure everyone has a safe place to rest and access basic necessities through this difficult time”.

*Name has been changed to protect anonymity.