On Monday 16 March, Boris Johnson told the British public to avoid any unnecessary travel. The sombre edict, announced at a No 10 press conference, didn’t quite get through to a certain section of the audience, however. Second home Britain was on the move, and nowhere – from the Isle of Wight to Snowdonia to the Lake District – was safe.
So many were ignoring official advice and fleeing to their scenic second properties that the government had to firm up its message less than a week later. On Sunday 22 March, it released essential travel guidance, instructing people to “remain in their primary residence”, and ruling out visits to second homes, camp sites or caravan parks – “whether for isolation purposes or holidays”.
The reason is simple: most second-homers would be travelling from London or other densely populated areas – where the coronavirus was quickly spreading – and would risk taking the disease to other corners of the country. This would have a knock-on pressure on local healthcare services and endanger the local population (which skews older in many rural areas with a high proportion of second homes).
Scandal dominated Scotland on 4 April when it emerged its chief medical officer, Catherine Calderwood, had contravened her own advice by visiting her second home in Fife on two consecutive weekends with her family – more than 40 miles from her home in Edinburgh. Police officers visited her to give her a warning and she eventually resigned on 5 April.
Despite this high-profile example, people are still flouting the lockdown guidance and travelling to their other residences. MPs representing such areas tell me that visitors are arriving in their cars at their second homes in the middle of the night, in an attempt to move in undetected.
This trend is now having an impact on health services across the country. The Covid Symptom Tracker app – a crowdsourced dataset of virus symptoms designed by doctors and scientists at King’s College London – shows higher infection rates than average in second home-heavy areas, including the Lake District, Anglesey and the Cotswolds, according to analysis by the Sunday Times.
According to data analysis by the New Statesman, almost all second home hotspots in England have had their health services cut over the past three years.
Looking at places with the highest proportion of second homes per capita, the county of Dorset is the most vulnerable to coronavirus spreading and the resulting demand overwhelming services, having had its health budget cut by 19 per cent since 2016:
Map by Ben Walker
Considering the areas with the highest number of second homes (without taking population into account), Buckinghamshire is most at risk, having had its health budget cut by 16.4 per cent since 2016:
Map by Ben Walker
The prevalence of second homes and thin healthcare provision is becoming an increasingly concerning combination as coronavirus spreads across the country.
“It’s certainly had an impact on pharmacies,” says Simon Hoare, Conservative MP for North Dorset. He has seen “incredibly long queues” at pharmacies in his constituency, struggling to fulfil repeat prescriptions and supply medicine to an influx of newcomers. Pharmacies are already stretched by an increase in demand due to Covid-19.
“A large number of second-home owners are coming down, turning up, queuing to get into the pharmacy – it then, of course, involves an awful lot of to-ing and fro-ing for the pharmacists: back to the London GP, back to the London pharmacy, because that’s where [the customers] are registered.
“That’s been adding some considerable strain to a key part of the rural health service.”
He accuses people travelling to their holiday properties of “jeopardising the welfare and health of people who are living in the areas”.
Dorset Council announced a 4 per cent increase in council tax earlier this year to tackle the rising costs of social care, pointing out that central government grants to local authorities had been cut by nearly 60 per cent since 2010. In January, campaigners lost their fight against the closure of Poole Hospital’s A&E department (which, alongside its maternity and paediatrics unit, will be absorbed by nearby Bournemouth hospital).
“The delivery of services in rural areas, due to the sparsity of population and the far-flung nature of geography, is much harder to deal with than [delivering services] in densely populated conurbations,” says Hoare.
“It’s an enormous luxury and privilege to have a second home, but this is now not the time to be visiting them. It is putting, and will continue to put, inordinate stress on already stretched public services, and it is shipping in contagion from more densely populated areas, particularly – though not exclusively – London.”
In Hoare’s constituency, which is largely rural with an elderly population (26 per cent are over 65, compared with the national figure of 16.5 per cent, according to LSE’s Democratic Dashboard project), he has noticed that “some people have been coming in the dead of night, which suggests they know what they’re doing isn’t right”, with visitors “creeping in at two o’clock in the morning and pretending they’ve been there all the time”.
“Undoubtedly it is putting a strain and a stress on the health service and will continue to do so, because I presume that second home owners won’t want to go back to London or Surrey or wherever; they will want to stay in the calm, quiet parts of the countryside,” he says. “And that is an incredibly selfish act.”
The Tory MP for Totnes, Anthony Mangnall, is also noticing visitors arriving in the dark in his Devon constituency. “It’s extraordinary – the road travelling in is quiet all day until about 11pm, and between 11pm and 2am it suddenly gets busy,” he tells me.
“In any other circumstance, a sudden influx of visitors would be really welcome; a huge part of the Devon economy is based on tourism and so many people are dependent on it,” he says.
“[But] where we’ve seen health facilities in Dartmouth being rolled back, with the closure of their cottage hospital in 2017, residents are really concerned about how they’re going to get their health provision if the population of their town suddenly dramatically increases and they’re worried about a virus.”
Dartmouth and Kingswear Community Hospital closed in March 2017. Devon as a county has struggled with social-care demands and shrinking budgets; between 2011 and 2017, the number of Devon Council employees working in adult social care had been cut by nearly half.
Totnes as a constituency has a high level of poor health at 6.3 per cent, and a disproportionately older population, with 30 per cent aged 65 and over.
“[The rise of visitors] is concerning for me, it’s concerning for residents, and I’m asking people to stay away now and come back when we’ve got the greenlight to be able to travel across the country,” says Mangnall.
Long before the coronavirus outbreak, backlash against second-home ownership and holiday rentals pushing up prices in certain areas had been building. In St Ives, Cornwall, residents voted for a ban on building new second homes in 2016. Other communities followed suit.
“The whole tourism sector is very important in rural areas. What I hope is people don’t act in a way that is so irresponsible that it builds up a legacy of resentment, antipathy, distrust and anger towards those who either own a second home or rent out a holiday property,” says says Simon Hoare.
“That won’t be good for intercommunity relations going forward. This may not be the most elegant of analogies, but you don’t want to end up with sort of Vichy conspirators in an echo of post-1945.”
Such tensions have been brought to the fore by Brits misusing their boltholes during the pandemic. Mangnall has expressed concerns to the Chancellor Rishi Sunak, and the Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick about second-home owners who list their properties as holiday rentals “exploiting” emergency coronavirus funding, such as small business grants and business rate relief.
He warns of second home owners in his constituency that are registered for business rates using the crisis to “pocket £10,000 designed to support struggling businesses”. A vast majority have “also applied for small business rate relief”.
Neither department commented specifically on this loophole; a Treasury spokesperson simply stated: “We encourage people to respect the spirit of the measures, and to not misuse the support we are offering.” (Mangnall has told his two local authorities, South Hams and Torbay, to freeze payments to second home-owners.)
The decline of public services in rural England is an often ignored story. Spending cuts and pressures on social care have degraded the public realm in many parts of the country, those that look otherwise idyllic and play holiday host to society’s most affluent.
“If people love the communities and the areas in which they have purchased a second home or have a caravan,” says Hoare, “if you’re fond of the neighbours and the new friends you have made, then I would suggest, out of human compassion and common sense, just give it a miss now.”