When coronavirus hit, Emily* had to make a choice. She could either stay where she lives in London, or she could get one of the last flights out of the city, and leave for her family's holiday house near in France. Here, she would be able to see her parents and grandmother – not to mention have access to more space than in her London flat, where she had been living alone.
Emily decided to go to France.
“I tried to stay calm and rational, but the situation escalated so much faster than anyone could have predicted,” she tells me over the phone. “I had this mad scramble where I had to get all my shit together and pay a fortune to get out of the country. Who knows if that's a reasonable decision?”
For most, life under lockdown has meant staying put. According to government guidelines announced last week, no one should be leaving their home to visit family and friends – and particularly not if that means travelling across the UK or beyond to a second property. However, worried about the prospect of not seeing family – or looking for a more comfortable self-isolation base – some young people are fleeing their primary residences to spend quarantine in holiday homes or Airbnbs, breaching official advice, and causing a major backlash from local communities. With a risk of bringing the virus to these often isolated areas, and putting a strain on medical services, is the trip really worth it?
Emily tells me that there is guilt attached to her decision to travel to her family’s second home. “I'm not going to lie – there's obviously something to be said about the privileged few who are able to go to a place that is spacious enough to not feel trapped,” she says. “There are so many arguments for people to stay in the place where they are at, instead of you know, spreading this thing all over the place, but that's when the emotional thing kicks in.”
Nonetheless, having more space and access to nature is making self-isolation significantly more tolerable for Emily. “The house is spacious and we can leave whenever we want to go walk around the forest,” she says. “It does feel quite nice, if you can forget that there's a pandemic and that you aren't actually allowed beyond the grounds of the house. You can temporarily trick yourself that you're on some sort of weird holiday. Some sort of weird retreat.”
“I do feel extremely lucky, obviously,” she adds. “This place is quite isolated. It's nice.”
With flights mostly cancelled, and borders closed, some Brits are travelling to second homes inside the country as the coronavirus crisis escalates. Molly* made the decision to travel to her family’s house in the country just before the lockdown measures were announced.
“I left London with my boyfriend to go to the West Country,” she tells me. "Partially because we wanted to get out of London, but partially because my mum lives alone and is immuno-compromised. I feel so guilty, like I’m using her as an excuse.”
Although being close to her mum was a deciding factor, isolating away from London – which has been among the worst-hit areas in the UK for coronavirus – was also a positive for Molly and her boyfriend. “My mum – before she retired – used to work in public health, and she thought that 'our lives might become uncomfortable' [if we came to the countryside],” says Molly. “It's definitely a bonus. I think if my mum lived in London, I don't think we would have so easily have all run over to her house.”
Government guidelines state that no one should travel from their primary place of residence, so did Molly worry about her decision? “I have barely left the house except to walk the dog with nobody around,” she says. “I saw all those things of people acting like it's a holiday, and we haven't been doing that at all, [but] I do feel guilty that I'm in a privileged position that I can still work from home and sit in a house in the countryside.”
Heading to a countryside holiday home during a pandemic isn’t just a privilege – there are real risks associated with it. Places like northern Wales have seen an increase in tourists visiting their holiday homes, which threatens to overwhelm local services. A local Welsh GP told ITV, “We are not sufficiently resourced to deal with this extra demand during these unprecedented circumstances.” Locals in the Scottish Highlands have also criticised visitors for potentially spreading the virus and putting their lives at risk. In a statement, the rural economy and tourism secretary Fergus Ewing explained that communities wouldn't be able to deal with panic buying or increased pressure on health services, and that he was “furious at the reckless and irresponsible behaviour of some people travelling to the Highland and Islands. They are endangering lives.”
Not everyone who has relocated during the corona crisis has done so for reasons of comfort, however. Alice and her mum decided to rent an Airbnb in Chichester in order to be closer to her grandparents. As both she and her mum were based in London and living separately on their own, they made the decision to leave the city before the lockdown was announced. They wanted to ensure that they would be able to help their grandparents get food and supplies.
“We weighed up the options and figured that if isolated for the next two months, we wanted life to be as enjoyable as possible by getting a place closer to the older relatives in our family,” Alice says. “Not only are we not so riddled with anxiety about them but we'd also be able to get to them quickly if the worst-case scenario did happen.”
Even though she and her mum have relocated to an Airbnb, it feels far from a holiday. “We both love London, so as you can imagine moving from there to Chichester (quite a dull town in comparison) during times like these, it is very, very sobering in a sense,” says Alice.
Maybe it's not too bad to be stuck in the city after all?
*Some names have been changed.