'Families were sharing facilities with other families': Council Covid spend on Travellers queried

Some €130,000 has been spent by Cork City Council on tackling the Covid-19 threat to the Traveller community. However, a local visibility group is asking what that money was spent on, Darragh Bermingham reports
'Families were sharing facilities with other families': Council Covid spend on Travellers queried

Breda O’Donoghue, director for advocacy, Cork Traveller Visibility Group Ltd., in the group’s offices in Cork. Picture Denis Minihane

CORK CITY COUNCIL spent almost €130,000 on measures to “deal with Covid-19” for the Traveller community in the city.

However, the Traveller Visibility Group (TVG), which works with members of the Traveller community in Cork, questioned the local authority’s response to Covid-19 and what that money was spent on.

Information obtained by The Echo through the Freedom of Information Act revealed that Cork City Council spent €129,696 “relating to measures to deal with Covid-19”.

When asked for more clarity on these measures, a spokesperson for City Hall said Cork City Council and HSE had an inter-agency response to the outbreak of Covid-19 and the particular risk it represented to the Traveller community.

The council undertook a number of initiatives, according to the spokesperson, including the provision of a ‘significant number’ of chemical toilets, sanitising all sites on two occasions, delivering water tankers, and providing hand sanitisers and personal toiletries.

“The council delivered a number of transportable and fixed mobile units for use as isolation units,” they said. In addition, 20 houses were made available to reduce overcrowding and congregation and to provide further isolation units.

“Both the council and the HSE continue to encourage members of the traveller community to take up the option of vaccinations and will accommodate any individuals willing to avail of same,” added the spokesperson.

However, the TVG questioned the council’s early approach to Covid-19, claiming that preventative measures it requested were not put in place, and that the support from the council was not enough to cater for the dozens of families on halting sites across the city.

Speaking to The Echo, the TVG’s director of advocacy, Breda O’Donoghue, said that the Traveller organisations in Cork do not accept that Cork City Council did all they could or should have done during the pandemic.

She explained that Traveller accommodation in Cork city was already in crisis before the pandemic, and that Covid-19 only exacerbated the situation.

“The pandemic only made things worse and showed just how bad things really are,” she said. “People were living in terrible conditions so when Covid happened, it heightened that even more.

“There were families living in fear of the virus because they knew they couldn’t protect themselves the way that the average person in a two or three bed house could.”

Three halting sites in Cork city - located at Spring Lane, St Anthony’s Park and Carrigrohane Road - currently operate with 36 bays between them. However, there are currently more than 100 families living on these sites, according to the TVG.

“Each bay has a pod that has a shower, toilet and sink,” Breda explained. “For each one of them, there’s probably three families using that - not three people, three families, and the average family could be two parents and five kids.

“Families were sharing toilets and running water facilities with other families, heightening the danger of an outbreak and spreading the virus.”

Cases of Covid-19 in Ireland began rising in April and May last year but Breda explained that the Traveller community in Cork managed to avoid any major outbreaks during the first wave of the virus.

“We were very lucky in wave one; we had very little Covid, which was a miracle to be honest,” she said. “For nine months, we were working very closely and as best we could with the local authority on trying to put in preventative measures so that, if something did hit, we would be prepared and people would have some sort of protection.”

The TVG called for additional caravans and isolation hubs to allow for the isolation of suspected cases, the extension of some halting sites to allow for greater social distancing, and increased facilities such as taps, showers and toilets.

They also inquired about the possibility of using closed caravan parks to rehome some people and reduce the chance of transmission.

While a handful of caravans and hubs were provided for isolation purposes, Breda explained that there were not enough, and said that many of their requests were not heeded. She feels that it took a large outbreak at a halting site for the local authority to begin working effectively with the TVG.

“There was a large outbreak and ourselves, the local authority, and public health came together and provided a wrap-around service for two weeks.

“That was great but if we had gotten the preventative measures that we were looking for in the first place, it would have been different.

“That community lost a member of their family as a result of that outbreak,” she added.

“As you can imagine, people were very angry and frustrated.

“Ninety-five percent of people got it, quite a number of them were very ill, at least two or three ended up in hospital and one man died. He went to hospital with Covid and he never came home.”

Breda explained that while City Hall did offer some assistance, it was not enough and “too little, too late”.

“There were a couple of portaloos provided to the sites but nowhere near what we would have needed for families to have their own toilets,” she said. “We needed extra caravans for people to isolate.

“There are four halting sites in Cork along with two or three unofficial sites, and there were three caravans made available to all those sites if someone needed an isolation unit.

“If there was an outbreak in a family, they were sometimes put in hubs that the local authority had taken control of.

“Particularly during the second lockdown, there were a number of families who went into these hubs to isolate for the two weeks before being brought back again, but there wasn’t enough, particularly if there was an outbreak on more than one site.

“We also asked the local authority to look at using nearby caravan parks and moving some families onto them during the height of the pandemic to make space available. They said they couldn’t extend the site at Spring Lane but provided no explanation as to why, so we suggested they use caravan parks and we were told no.

“Those were the type of preventative measures we were looking for but we didn’t get them.

“We did work closely with the local authority but there was very little in terms of outcomes to be honest.”

While the vaccination programme is being rolled out quickly and society is beginning to reopen, Breda explained that the Traveller community is still susceptible to the virus and that any outbreaks could still have devastating consequences.

“Not much has changed for this community; their circumstances and living conditions certainly haven’t changed,” she said. “It’s sad to think that amount of money was spent and it’s hard to see where.

“We’re still in the pandemic with a population that have underlying conditions sometimes caused by their living conditions, and there is a concern that, even though people might be vaccinated, they could be in danger if they contract this virus.”

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