LGIU’s Alice Creasy writes on the phenomenon of city-dwellers ‘escaping’ the novel coronavirus by heading in droves to the countryside – provoking anger from rural communities who are already struggling with the outbreak.
From Mumbai and San Francisco to Paris and London, thousands of city-dwellers across the world have tried to escape the Coronavirus by heading into the countryside, provoking anger from rural communities already struggling to cope with the outbreak. While this trend has now been temporarily addressed in the UK with the announcement of a lockdown on Monday night, it is an issue that remains ever-present both for communities across the world where these strict measures have not yet been imposed and for those in countries where restrictions are being relaxed.
As countries near a state of lockdown there is a pattern emerging as people flee cities to remote rural areas in an attempt to escape the Coronavirus. In Italy, thousands of people in the north of the country travelled to the South in an effort to escape the virus just days before the lockdown was announced. Similarly in France, Parisians scrambled to leave the city as the nation prepared for lockdown in the middle of March. In Australia, some states have already closed borders in advance of reported cases of community transmission.
With a lockdown looming, over the weekend the UK saw similar patterns of movement as people from cities and second homeowners fled to rural areas across the country. In England there have been reports that holiday letting companies are struggling to keep up with a surge in enquiries as experts reported a frantic scramble to leave urban areas ahead of the lockdown announced on Monday night. At a time where social distancing is vital to stop the spread of the virus, rural areas have seen a dramatic surge in visitor numbers. Snowdonia in Wales, for example, has seen ‘unprecedented’ visitor numbers and in Fort William, Scotland, over 30 campervans were turned away from the Nevis Range campsite at the weekend.
Across the Scottish Highlands, a significant influx of calls to mountain rescue services led to Scottish Mountain Rescue issuing an appeal to people to stay away from the hills and signs have appeared in rural communities across the UK urging visitors to return home.
In Scotland, in response to the influx of visitors over the weekend Fergus Ewing, Holyrood’s rural economy and tourism secretary, said he was “furious” at such “irresponsible behaviour”. This has been echoed by rural MPs and MSPs such as Ian Blackford who represents the Highland constituency of Ross, Skye and Lochaber, John Finnie, MSP for the Highlands and Islands region and Kate Forbes, MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch. In response, the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon imposed a restriction on island ferry services that bans all but essential journeys.
Not only does this movement increase the risk of wider infection but it spreads the problem into areas with healthcare systems that cannot cope with this kind of pressure. Across the UK, there are fears that an increase in cases brought to the area by visitors could cause local NHS services, already under pressure to provide care to remote and ageing populations, to collapse.
The lack of adherence to social distancing advice contributed to the announcement of a UK lockdown from Monday night and while these stricter measures will hopefully reduce the risk infection within rural communities, the health impacts of the large movement of people over the weekend is yet to be seen. Furthermore, while this issue will abate during a period of lockdown, concerns remain about what will happen once these restrictions have relaxed as social distancing is predicted to remain important for months to come.
While the UK catches up to the rest of Europe, the issue of urban to rural migration during this global pandemic remains ever-present in countries where lockdown measures have not yet been imposed and will remain a key issue as lockdowns that are already in place are gradually relaxed. As the impacts of the virus sweep across the world there is still time for communities and governments to learn from other countries and issue in-country travel advice that could save lives.