By Karen Bate
A covid outbreak at Piddlehinton Gypsy and Traveller site has highlighted worrying difficulties for its residents.
Health issues, poverty and isolation are nothing new for many of the residents living at the camp. But these inequalities nearly became a matter of life and death when covid hit.
On June 19, Gary was badly affected by the virus and left gasping for breath. His wife called 999, but the ambulance was unable to gain entry into the padlocked Dorset Council site because neither residents nor ambulance crew knew the entry code.
The ambulance was parked at the gates while two paramedics walked through the site to reach Gary. The locks were eventually cut to allow the ambulance access.
And when long-standing resident Morris collapsed on June 27, unable to breathe due to covid coupled with chronic COPD, South Western Ambulance Service was called again.
But once again the ambulance was unable to gain entry.
The residents phoned Vickey Stevens, their advocate who lives in Piddlehinton, as they feared possible prosecution for cutting the locks.
Vickey arrived on the scene, cut the chain and the ambulance followed Vickey, who escorted them in her car to reach Morris.
“I was very ill,” said Morris, who works full-time filling and repairing boats with fibreglass and has lived on the camp for 31 years. “I didn’t really know what was happening.”
Morris is recovering at home now, being cared for by his three children Shaun, Valerie and Luke, who also live on site.
“Family is everything,” said Morris.
Vickey, who is a community volunteer and formerly a project manager and school governor, said: “On two occasions in the past two weeks, the locks had to be cut off the gates to allow the ambulance through to treat people with covid who were struggling for breath.
“Dorset Council has assured us that the ambulance and emergency services now have the correct codes for the locks. Access through the barriers is one of the many complex issues needing to be addressed here.”
What struck me first, when I visited Dorset Council’s Piddlehinton Gypsy and Traveller Site, was the entrance gate, locked with a metal chain and padlock, with three CCTV cameras in operation 24/7. “It is like an open prison,” said resident Keith.
“Decades ago we were rounded up in our horse-drawn wagons and touring caravans and told to live at the site. If we didn’t want to, we were told to leave Dorset.”
Keith is intelligent and softly spoken. He left his travelling days long ago but the longing to travel remains.
“If I could leave here now, I would,” he said. “We used to have a warden here and the camp was run really well. It’s not good now, it is being left to rot.”
Most of the 28 adults who live there have been double vaccinated and take this coronavirus pandemic with utmost seriousness. There are no anti-vaxxers here.
Vickey said: “The residents managed to contain the spread in family groups but unfortunately those families without the space or room to quarantine were all infected.
“One family who live on a bigger plot, were able to contain the spread by quarantining the infected family member in a separate caravan.
“Those people living here on the camp during this outbreak showed responsibility, resourcefulness and resilience.”
There are 28 adults and 20 children living in 15 caravans at the site, in small rows on pitches originally designed for a horse and cart or a small touring caravan. To quarantine here is not easy, space is limited and there is little escape from your neighbours. Most of the caravans have one or two bedrooms to house families of up to six.
Living here is not cheap. Residents pay council tax, a monthly service bill and pitch fees. Residents pay for and obtain their own caravans. And an upfront pitch fee deposit of £500 is required to move here.
There is a community building at the entrance, in which the children sometimes have informal classes. It is in very poor condition. A structure the children used to play on collapsed on to a car – fortunately no one was nearby at the time.
Many adults here have contracted work, others are on zero hours contracts, most cannot read or write.
On July 16, members of Dorset Council are set to attend a meeting at the camp.
Vickey said: “We want to talk to the council about how to make the lives of residents at the camp better. We have begun, as a group to address and tackle some of the often complex issues within and surrounding this community.”
Vickey has been friends with Mary Margaret, a Romany traveller who has lived in Piddlehinton camp for 18 years, for a decade. Mary’s daughter Kate is getting married and when I meet them, they are planning a trip to Bournemouth to find a dress.
Mary cannot read or write so finding work is hard, but she insisted her children were all schooled.
Mary said: “It is hard to find a job. I have been to interviews but when I have to fill out a form, I can’t do it. I don’t get the job. I have never wanted my children to feel this way so they all went to school.
“Things here are not good any more. I pay a lot to live here and everywhere is run down. Vickey has been so helpful. More has been done in the last six months with Vickey than in the last 18 years.”
She added: “The terrible thing is that people will say why don’t you travel like the old days, but we have to move with the times and no one can stay on the road now, you just get moved on immediately.
“There’s a Section 32 so if you are on private land it’s an immediate move. My old way of life is impossible.”
The High Sheriff of Dorset Michael Dooley is set to visit the Piddlehinton Gypsy and Traveller Site on Wednesday.
The New Blackmore Vale has seen film footage of the ambulance at the gates and paramedics entering the site on foot.
The ambulance service is now believed to have the code. And a member of staff from the council is due to visit the site next week. However the difficulty accessing the camp doesn’t appear to gave been officially recorded. A spokesman from South Western Ambulance Service said: “There’s no indication we had difficulty reaching patients at this location because we had the necessary access details.”
A spokesman for Dorset Council said: “The barrier is in place for site security, as well as health and safety reasons. It prevents unauthorised access, which can also create a fire risk. The latest incident occurred as SW Ambulance failed to inform paramedics of a new gate code. We have done everything we can – it’s now a SW Ambulance issue.”