Tensions have risen in a small Shropshire market town after an outbreak of Covid-19 following an engagement party on a Travellers’ site.
Travellers expressed anger that they had been told to remain on the site in Craven Arms, near Ludlow, with one claiming they were being treated “like animals”.
But other residents of the town said they were concerned some Travellers were defying the request by public health officials to stay at home and fear this could lead to a Covid-19 spike in the wider community.
The outbreak followed a party at the Craven Arms site, attended by another group of Travellers who live on a second site 24 miles away in Welshpool, mid Wales.
Shropshire council has said 23 Covid-19 cases at the Craven Arms site had been confirmed of 41 residents it had tested. The council has said it expects to see the number of cases to continue to rise. Around half a dozen people are believed to have tested positive at the Welshpool site.
Residents on the site have been asked to self-isolate with members of their households for 14 days following contact with a positive case.
Council officials have arranged for fuel, groceries and medicine to be delivered to people on the site, which has operated for more than 50 years.
A testing facility has been set up on a business park nearby while a children’s playground, outdoor gym, library and community centre have been closed.
One of the Travellers, Patrick, claimed that the number of people who had tested positive had been exaggerated: “They are treating us like animals,” he said. “Would they shut a housing estate down if there were a few cases like there have been here? We are being treated differently”.
Patrick, who declined to give his full name, confirmed that the outbreak in Craven Arms began after travellers from Welshpool visited: “One of them had the virus and it was passed on to people here. It was just an engagement party.”
He conceded he had defied the request to stay at home and had been in the town on Sunday morning to buy groceries but the shopkeeper refused to serve him and called the police.
Cllr David Evans, who owns a hardware store in the town, said he believed the Travellers were complying with the request to stay put, he said: “It’s difficult to enforce but I think they want to work with us”.
Rachel Robinson, Shropshire council’s director of public health, said the risk to the wider public was “low”.
But Carol Streatfield, 68, a volunteer at a charity shop, said she was worried that there could be an outbreak among the wider community. “I’m angry. They’ve been silly buggers if they’ve had a party. I’ve got nothing against them but it would be a shame if the whole town was affected. We haven’t had much coronavirus around here. We’ve been lucky. We have a lot of elderly people here who would be vulnerable.”
A shopkeeper, who asked not to be named, said it had been the quietest day he had known in the 15 years he had been in town. “Everyone is hiding away. They are scared.”
Debby Davies, who runs a domiciliary care business looking after 40 elderly people in Craven Arms, said she had tried to get her staff tested because of the outbreak but had been told they were not eligible unless they or someone they lived with had symptoms.
Davies said: “So far none of our clients and none of our staff have had coronavirus. It’s scary that it’s so close to home now.”
Sarah Sweeney, from national charity Friends Families and Travellers (FFT), said: “We’ve been highlighting to government that the confined and communal nature of Traveller sites means that if a coronavirus case enters a site, there’s a really high likelihood it will spread quite quickly. That’s despite the fact we think generally people are following all the guidelines, very strictly and carefully. So for us, it feels unsurprising this has happened.
“We hope this will be a wake up call that there needs to be significant improvements in the way sites are managed, but also particularly in the time of coronavirus that people need to be supported to be safe.
“There is a concern that Traveller communities could be scapegoated, but we work with over 1,000 families every year and we know that it’s not a behavioural issue, it’s a structural inequality issue.”