S&C contributor Maggie Sawkins put us in touch with her daughter, Portsmouth born Cat Sawkins, who now lives in Southern Ireland. Sarah Cheverton interviews Cat about how the Irish government have handled lockdown, how they are providing financial support to the self-employed, as well as how the situation affects Cat as someone living with auto-immune conditions.
SC: Can you tell us a little about yourself, where you are in Ireland and what you do for a living?
CS: I’m 36, originally from Portsmouth, but I’ve lived in Ireland for ten years. I live in Bray, County Wicklow, just a 20 minute drive to Dublin city centre. I’ve lived in my current home for about seven years; I rent it for an extortionate amount of money as all renters in Ireland are subject to, it’s more expensive than London, even outside Dublin. However I do love it, I’m just outside a seaside town and can (usually) walk to many shops, bars and pubs within 20 minutes, yet my cottage feels quite rural with a field of cows one side and a field of sheep the other, and the lane I’m on goes to a golf course so it’s very quiet.
In October I began a new career as a sales consultant for a solar panel company. I work on a self-employed, commission-only basis, which I had never done before so that has been a bit of a leap of faith and a bit of a struggle sometimes. My job involves me attending pre-arranged appointments inside people’s homes. I have to look around the inside and outside of the house and spend up to two hours going through everything with the potential customers. So it is not possible to socially distance and it is not really something we can do remotely.
Sales is a LOT about building rapport with people and I really don’t know how the business will work going forwards, it will be a time for learning and adapting I guess.
When did you become aware of the virus and the government response? What was it like there?
I don’t watch much Irish TV, instead I watch UK TV, but I listen to Irish radio. So I was very aware of the differences in both the strategies and the outcomes between the UK and Ireland. Since lockdown I’ve avoided it all a little more as I think I might go mad otherwise!
However, it was very clear that the Irish government were much quicker to implement precautionary changes than the UK was, despite the much lower infection and death rate here. Ireland’s health system, however, is not what I’d consider to be amazing – absolutely no fault of the amazing staff, but like the UK massive underfunding is an issue. There are constant news reports of thousands of people on trolleys rather than beds, even when there is no pandemic so the quick action really I guess was necessary to prevent total disaster. Ireland has about 250 ICU beds – that’s 50 beds per million people. Italy has 125 ICU beds per million people, so it was clear that the government needed to act fast.
Schools here, along with public playgrounds, childcare facilities, colleges and universities, were all ordered to be closed on 12th March. The government also ordered that any outside gatherings of more than 500 people and inside of more than 100 were not allowed and companies were urged to have people working from home where possible; social distancing was introduced in workplaces along with staggering break times to avoid groups of employees being confined together. The pubs were ordered to close on the 15th as it was clear that rules were not being adhered to and there was a lot of public pressure.
It was initially thought this would be in place for 2 weeks.
[Editor’s note: Schools, nurseries and colleges closed under government orders in England on 23rd March; most universities in England had suspended face to face teaching by 17th March, after ‘nearly a week of…scaling back teaching hours’, as reported by the Financial Times. The government announced mass gatherings would be cancelled in England on 13th March, to come into effect on 20th March, as reported by the Financial Times. Social distancing measures (requiring people to stay at home, the closure of ‘certain’ businesses and venues and stopping all gatherings of more than two people in public) were announced by the government on 23rd March. Pubs in England were ordered to close by the night of 20th March, as reported by the BBC.]
The company I subcontract to, along with many others, made the decision to temporarily cease trading before the official lockdown. I was told on the 16th March that the company was making that decision.
Ireland did not go into full lockdown until nearly 2 weeks later on the 27th March, at which time we had 22 deaths related to Covid-19 and 2121 confirmed cases. [A the time of this interview] we are still in full lockdown, it has been reviewed a couple of times.
[Editor’s note: On 1st May, the Irish government published a Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business to ease the COVID-19 restrictions and reopen Ireland’s economy and society in a phased manner, with Phase 1 starting from 18th May.]
Full lockdown involved the closure of all non-essential businesses. Businesses still allowed to operate include public transport, hospitals and pharmacies, grocery stores, essential maintenance services such as phone and internet, car mechanics (essential work only), funeral directors, and waste collectors. A lot of food establishments are still open but just for collection or delivery etc.
Otherwise people have to stay home. We are allowed to leave for essential food, supplies (fuel etc), essential medical appointments, and if you are a key worker. Any exercise is limited to within 2km of your home, and places like woodland and park walks have all had their carparks closed off so people are deterred from driving to areas for exercise.
[Editor’s note: On 5th May, the 2km limit for physical exercise was extended to 5km.]
There are further measures for the over 70s and those with serious health conditions, myself included. We must cocoon, so not leave your home at all (being in the garden is permitted if you have one) and avoid all face-to-face contact with others, even to the point that we are advised to not be in the same room as other people. Anyone coming into the house must instantly wash their hands for at least 30 seconds (so if you live with other people, or have people coming to care for you) if people are delivering food they just leave it at the door. If you live with other people you are advised to use separate cutlery and towels and bathrooms if possible.
[Editor’s note: On 5th May, those in Ireland who are ‘cocooning’ are permitted to ‘go outside for exercise and fresh air…provided [they] keep within 5 kilometres of [their] home and observe social distancing at all times’. ]
Are you in lockdown with others or by yourself? How has being in lockdown affected your day to day life?
I live with one other person; we have been practicing social distancing within the house, and following instructions as much as possible in a small building with 1 bathroom. She is still working as she is a chef, I have been relying on her to do all my shopping, and walk the dogs!
But it has been quite scary as I am immuno-compromised due to having two autoimmune diseases. I have to take medication including low level chemo and a biological drug that kills your immune system; I cannot come off this medication and will likely be on it for life. I am worried about contracting Covid-19 because it’s a strong possibility that I would need an ICU bed, and I do not want to be a strain on the health service.
I am extremely lucky that I have a lovely big garden and I am also quite happy being alone (well I’m not really, 3 dogs and a cat! And Sinead is here in the evenings) and I can entertain myself. I am actually taking part in a fundraiser for the Dogs Trust [a dogs rehoming and rescue charity] where I take part in daily yoga classes online and post updates. The challenge is to reach 300 downward dog poses – people have been very generous so far!
I have also recently discovered Zoom and taken part in one family quiz and have more lined up with my colleagues and friends and family.
The Irish lockdown measures seem to be more specific than here in England, for example, the guidance to ‘exercise within 2 kilometres of your house‘ – have you found this difficult to follow, or has it been a relatively easy experience?
As I have to cocoon, the rules for most are not relevant to me, but most people I know have adhered to the rules and don’t see an issue with them. But we are lucky that we live in a nice area with a large park, a small beach, and woodlands all within 2km. I can’t imagine what it is like for people in inner cities confined to apartments and pavements.
You’re self-employed, have you been able to access any financial support from the government, and if so, is it helping?
The government introduced an emergency payment of 350 Euros per week for anyone who had lost their employment because of Covid-19. The form was relatively simple to fill in. This is only available for six weeks, then each person must apply for Job Seekers Allowance of 205 Euros per week.
They are also offering rent supplements for those affected, and have doubled the maximum amount that they usually pay. Each person is assessed individually for this but again the forms have been relatively easy to fill out.
I think the general feeling is that people are very grateful for this help, I certainly am!
What would have happened for you if this financial support wasn’t available?
I dread to think! As a renter you are at the mercy of others…and my landlords are not known for their kindness and generosity.
What are you looking forward to the most when the crisis is over?
Getting back to the wilderness with my dogs!
I also can’t wait to go back to my local pub, the Harbour Bar (voted best pub in the world by Lonely Planet once upon a time), but I have no idea when that might be.