Six local residents tell their stories

Simon Cooper 

As a long-standing building and landscape contractor in Hastings, my business has not suffered during the lockdown – indeed I have to admit that I’ve enjoyed some benefits as well as inconveniences.

For the first couple of weeks, I stayed at home, not being quite sure how to react to the official regulations. But I had a job concreting a base for ground solar panels in a field in Pett. It was out in the open, and I could get it done with one other person – we travelled to the site in two separate cars and worked a reasonable distance apart.

If you find you’re short with the material you’ve ordered… you can’t just go and get it

The only problem, both there and at other jobs I’ve done, has been getting materials. Initially, we couldn’t collect from any suppliers, we were reliant on deliveries from them; and even as a regular trader I would have to wait up to two weeks from ordering to delivery. Some suppliers, like Tate Fencing in Flimwell, operate a click-and-collect service, but that still makes for delays and other difficulties. If you find you’re short with the material you’ve ordered, or you need some particular solvent or piece of equipment, you can’t just go and get it. 

I’m certainly in high demand now, and I’m sure I will be in the coming months too. A lot of people have been out in their gardens, doing stuff that they have been meaning to do for a long time. Me too – my own garden is looking good, and I’ve had more time to enjoy it with the family at home with me.

Appliance Specialist
Ben Smith

As the self-employed owner of a business (Ben Smith Appliances) supplying and repairing household appliances, I have had to keep working through the pandemic. And I’ve rarely been so busy – or not since the 1980s, when my dad and uncle, who started in the trade, were pretty much the only suppliers in town. 

In modern times most of the big appliance vendors – Hotpoint, Zanussi and others – sell and install their own machines direct. But since lockdown started they have had no staff willing to go into people’s homes to do it. For the first week I had no work either. Then I put a notice on Facebook that I was prepared to do installations with proper hygiene safeguards and social distancing – suddenly I was trebling my sales. I wear full PPE, I ring ahead to make sure that my customers won’t be in the room I’ll be working in – and, to be honest, I’m getting jobs done quicker without anyone hanging around for a chat or serving me cups of tea. The roads have been empty, I’ve been able to park my van where I like – it’s great.

I think it’ll take a while for things to get back to normal, and there’s likely to be a gap in the supply chain at some stage, since the places where most appliances are manufactured – Turkey, Poland, Italy – have themselves been in lockdown. In the meantime I’m enjoying it – home-schooling my youngest son in the mornings and going out to work in the afternoons.

Specialist Counsellor
Simon Daniels

I provide psychological support for people with mental health problems and challenging behaviours, and for their carers – staff in care homes; family or part-time carers for clients who live at home; nurses etc. Prior to the pandemic I was seeing most of my clients or patients (the label depending on whether I am consulting in a medical context or not) at our office in Cavendish House, or travelling to their homes; and attending around three or four team meetings a week, often with 15 or more attendees.

In lockdown it’s been quite different. I’ve been working entirely from home, conducting both interviews and team meetings on Skype or an NHS
app called ‘Attend Anywhere’ (preferred to Zoom, which is not regarded as a secure medium). 

The first couple of weeks were very hard work. My work computer didn’t link up to my home printer.  Colleagues and other key workers, particularly carers, were going off work for self-isolation. Some clients with learning disabilities became very anxious, not having the capacity to understand why their usual routines of attending day centres etc were changing. Autistic clients craving routine and predictability found the lockdown very difficult to adapt to.  

On the other hand, my home has in many ways proved a better environment to work in. I don’t waste time driving between appointments; I don’t have to book special meeting rooms at set times; I can write up my letters and reports, which take a big proportion of my time overall, without distraction. With some clients it’s important to make face-to-face contact – to interpret their facial expressions and general body language, for instance. But for others, particularly those on the autistic spectrum, remote communication by computer feels natural and, indeed, sometimes less threatening than a real physical meeting. Video conferencing also has a novelty interest, both for me and for those clients I’m working with.

Assuming we return in due course to normal conditions with no need for social distancing, I hope we will have learnt some benefits from this experience. I’m sure I’ll be suggesting that I work remotely from home more often, and travel backwards and forwards a lot less.

Building Site Worker
Andy S

I am 28, living in Hastings. I had been working with a mate on a building site in East Grinstead in the days leading up to the 23rd March lockdown.

When it was announced, we stopped work on this site – initially because the boss wasn’t sure whether we were allowed to go on; then he decided we could, but it transpired that we couldn’t get materials anyway. 

I spent three or four days at home, then I asked the boss whether there was any work elsewhere he could find for us. He said we could transfer to a site on Hove seafront where they were building a new residential block. My mate has diabetes and is therefore potentially at higher Covid-19 risk than me; also his mother was seriously ill (unrelated to Covid) in the Conquest Hospital. For both those reasons he didn’t want to go to Hove. But neither I nor my home partner had any alternative ways of earning money, so we agreed I should.

It was fine weather, easy travelling with very little competing traffic, and in truth I’m not too worried about catching the virus myself. 

In a team of seven or more it was generally possible to work two metres apart, but some heavy lifting jobs made this distancing impracticable. In any event we shared a changing room, a canteen and a kettle.  One day – apparently after a complaint by a neighbour who told the police we weren’t distancing properly – the foreman produced ‘dust’ masks for us. By lunchtime they were filthy both inside and out, and only I and one other labourer kept them on. Unless we had been given fresh ones every hour there was really no point, and this provision was not repeated.

Our work was the only activity in the neighbourhood, so while a few people came forward to the site manager on a regular basis to complain – about noise and dust as well as lack of distancing – others  saw us as daily entertainment: lots of dads and toddlers would come by to watch us perform. 

After a month or so, the site at East Grinstead started up again. My mate was happy to resume working there, so I have transferred back. 

Andrea Randall-Smith

Since January 2020 I have been CEO of Little Gate Farm, which exists as a charity to help people with learning disabilities (LD) and autism into paid work. In normal times we train them, find work for them, and support them as appropriate in that work. 

Up to the beginning of March, up to 22 “work trainees” would come to our premises in Beckley each day (Tuesday to Friday), collected from their homes by three minibuses – some living with their parents, some with Shared Lives or other community support carers, a few on their own. Most would come just once or twice weekly; we have a total of 64 trainees in all on our books.

In the fortnight or so before the lockdown we were already finding concerns about social distancing – a higher proportion of our trainees than of the average population should be considered vulnerable to the virus, and some parents and carers didn’t think they should be exposed. From 23rd March we had to close – but have continued our training online with Zoom and with support packs. 

After initial tech troubles our staff have adapted impressively, developing course materials that our trainees could learn from even while stuck at home. Though some of the latter have struggled, others have had their confidence and their skills boosted by learning to function online. For some, it’s proved a less anxious time where they can rely on a regular routine that doesn’t change much at all. There has also been more time for our staff to interact with parents and carers.

The staff who run our Young Ranger holiday club for LD and autistic children, aged between 8 and 18, have also turned to online provision, maintaining much needed support and a regular routine for the children, parents and carers.

But of course the prospects of getting jobs have, at least in the short to medium term, become much harder.  We have just four trainees currently in work – at a hospital and in care homes. One who had a job with Hastings Borough Council has been furloughed. But then so have our bus drivers, some admin staff and job coaches. The extension of the furlough scheme announced last week was very welcome.

Our income has fallen too, since we get no funding now from the government’s Access To Work scheme. East Sussex County Council has slightly cut its grant, and we have needed to raise alternative financial support from other funders and a crowdfunding appeal. 

Personally I have enjoyed the challenge of keeping the charity afloat while at the same time having three children of my own, who should all be at school, to mind at home.  I believe there will be a new normal, and have been amazed by the flexibility and creativity of all the Little Gate staff. What the future holds, who knows?

Annie Soudain

For me as a visual artist, lockdown has meant no change in the way I work. Self-isolation has been my way of life since giving up teaching. It was perfect with my late husband Jim busy upstairs carefully translating from French or German, needing complete quietness. I would work in my studio below with just the sound of the computer clicking and the occasional yawn for company.

My perfect time would be several uninterrupted days in a row when I had no need to go out at all, except for a walk when we had finished our day’s work.

Endless days of unbroken time are a different matter. With exhibitions, shows and open studios cancelled, the luxury of unpressured time is in many ways a freedom, but now I need a framework to work within and goals to aim for. Each evening I write a list, and try to finish and tick off jobs to be completed the following day. The positives are having time to de-clutter, sorting print lockers, clearing drawers and shelves all around the house. I still have a backlog of prints where the edition is incomplete. I am able to look back now instead of starting new work. 

My perfect time would be several uninterrupted days in a row

The downside is the loneliness. I had just got used to Jim not being here, but had been more in contact with my family and friends. The sudden, and also prolonged, estrangement is so alien. 

I still count myself fortunate. I live in a lovely place; I have a garden; family and friends keep in touch, deliveries are made and post is posted. But I am concerned for children not able to see and play with their friends, for close families living apart, and for people dying in such lonely circumstances.

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