‘Open prison’: Council hired guards to enforce Covid rules against Travellers

Image credit: Pexels / Travis Saylor.

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Security guards monitored dozens of Traveller families at a caravan park, demanding their reasons to enter and leave.

Reports Aaron Walawalkar, Liberty Investigates journalist, and Aamna Mohdin, Guardian community affairs correspondent. Edited by Eleanor Rose, Liberty Investigates editor.


A north Wales council has been accused of discrimination for hiring a private security firm to enforce coronavirus restrictions at a caravan site after some residents tested positive.

Security guards monitored dozens of Traveller families at the Riverside site in Queensferry between 20 and 22 January, demanding their reasons to enter and leave.

The security firm was deployed after Public Health Wales recommended the entire caravan site be designated an “extended household” as it had “significant clusters” of Covid-19 and some families were unwilling or unable to self-isolate, Flintshire Council said.

A video posted by reality TV star Paddy Doherty – who lives at the site and was hospitalised with the virus earlier in January – shows a council-hired security guard saying: “We’re trying to stop them from going out … we’re trying to protect them and other people. We don’t want them coming in and out and passing the Covid. They need to realise how severe the Covid is.”

Police were called to a stand-off at the site between guards and residents trying to leave at 8am on 22 January. The council then withdrew the firm.

Flintshire Council said it had consulted residents and a community spokesman before dispatching the guards, which it called a “Welfare/Security team”, but confirmed it did not obtain residents’ consent to treat the site as an extended household as it “was not for discussion”. Relevant partner agencies agreed to this decision under devolved legislative powers, it said.

The action – which meant all residents being asked to stay on-site even if they had tested negative and lived in separate caravans from positive cases – was taken to protect public health, it said.

It is understood some residents welcomed the move, but others took to social media to express concerns.

“I [know] the country is suppose[d] to be on lockdown but they are trying to stop us from [even] going Asda,” one resident said in a Facebook post shared more than 240 times.

"This would not happen to the settled community. Imagine if we imprisoned everyone in the local housing estate or tower block because a few of the residents tested positive. It’s an infringement of human rights.”

Yvonne MacNamara, CEO of Traveller Movement

Yvonne MacNamara, CEO of Traveller Movement, said they were alarmed by this incident, which has caused “great distress and anger” amongst some residents.

“The government has been extremely slow disseminating information about the Coronavirus to Gypsy and Traveller people, and we feel this incident reflects that poor communication.

“We also find it worrying that the Coronavirus Act is being exploited in this way, literally imprisoning an entire community of people into their homes. This would not happen to the settled community. Imagine if we imprisoned everyone in the local housing estate or tower block because a few of the residents tested positive. It’s an infringement of human rights.”

MacNamara added: “We also have concerns that this is not an isolated incident, and that many Traveller sites will be targeted in the same way.”

Trudy Aspinwall, team manager at the advocacy project Travelling Ahead, run by charity TGP Cymru, said: “Gypsy and Traveller sites are places of residence where families live on a permanent basis. I cannot envisage a situation where it would be acceptable to treat any other group of residents in this way […] It’s a very, very worrying precedent to set.”

The council confirmed no other settlements – such as tower blocks – had been designated an extended household.

When posting the video clip showing the guards to Facebook, Paddy Doherty appeared to welcome them. But on Thursday, the 62-year-old told Liberty Investigates that although the guards were civil: “There was no need for security to be there … It was like you were in an open prison … It was just a bit intimidating, police and security. What a waste of money.”

The former bare-knuckle boxer on Saturday told his Facebook followers he had returned to hospital to be treated for shortness of breath and would be out again on Sunday morning.

TV star Paddy Doherty filmed the guards in a video posted to his Facebook page. Credit: Facebook / Paddy Doherty

A spokesperson for Flintshire Council told Liberty Investigates it acted under Schedule 21 of the Coronavirus Act. Introduced in March last year, it grants Welsh public health officers the power to impose restrictions on people assessed as “potentially infectious” which are “necessary and proportionate” to protect public health.

But under the Equality Act, public authorities – such as Flintshire Council – are also required to ensure they do not harass or victimise groups based on protected characteristics, such as their ethnicity.

Travellers and Gypsies – who face stark inequalities, including a life expectancy 10 years lower than the national average – are recognised as a protected ethnicity under the Act.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission of Wales has written to the council to seek an explanation.

A spokesperson for Flintshire Council said: “We made our decisions taking cognisance of the Equalities Act and with consideration of each partner agencies’ respective duties.”

They added that residents were provided with food deliveries during the isolation period. “The majority of families respected what we were trying to achieve and the focus was on the health and well-being of all residents.”

Public Health Wales has been approached for comment.