“It’s not actually a lockdown. It’s people making a fuss over things. The reason they’re doing that is they’re bored and have nothing else to do.” Nicholas, a member of L’Arche Ipswich with a learning disability, seemed relatively laid-back about Covid-19. “We all get ill anyway,” he said.

Not everyone is finding it so easy. Nicholas’ housemate in the Ark is Aidan. Since 2017, Aidan had been an assistant in a different L’Arche home in Ipswich. He was asked to move after all German nationals on volunteer placements were repatriated at two days’ notice, leaving a shortage of male assistants to help in the Ark. “I had to pack up and move two and a half years of stuff in about an hour.” In L’Arche Edinburgh, meanwhile, ten German assistants were recalled, virtually overnight.

In Manchester, there has been a happier twist to the tale. Two assistants, Laura and Anna, returned home, only for the German government to relax its restrictions shortly after they landed. They got on the plane back to Manchester, and were in the Community again after a week of precautionary quarantine. However, such stories are the exception rather than the rule. L’Arche Brecon is still awaiting the return of a Ghanaian assistant. She had returned home for the funeral of a family member, only to be stranded there once travel restrictions were imposed.

L'Arche Manchester's Community Gathering - on Zoom.

It is not only that the departure of these assistants leaves a Community short-staffed. There is also sadness at the loss of cherished friends: “We lost 170 hours of support per week. But our spirits were really low, not just because of the lockdown, but because of losing members of the Community we really loved,” explains Karolina, who is in charge of the Ark in Ipswich. “There was a lot of tears and emotion.”

The pandemic has raised all sorts of practical challenges. In the weeks and days leading up to the outbreak, each L’Arche Community was drafting a Continuity Plan, to prepare for different scenarios should the virus arrive in the UK: how to support a member of the Community who caught the virus without infecting everyone else; how to quarantine parts of a house from each other; how to devise skeleton rotas to keep social interaction to a minimum. Now the National Team is sending out daily bulletins to each Community, including briefings on relevant changes to employment law or the Care Act, along with suggestions for how to celebrate Holy Week and Easter using video technology.

As Des in Brecon puts it: “The challenges at the moment are around supporting everyone well.” They closed their book rebinding workshop to anyone not living in the Community, but decided to make an exception for one lady with a disability, who was living elsewhere in difficult circumstances. “We realised she would be left high and dry if she could not get out of her house to come to the workshop from time to time,” Des explains. The Community decided to isolate an assistant, in order to support her to come to the workshop during the week, “so that she’s got some social contact, really, someone to talk to.”

Often, the challenge is to communicate what is going on, to those who find it hard to understand why their lives have suddenly changed. Community leaders film videos of themselves to be shown in the houses, not only to explain the situation, but to reassure members of the Community that they have not been abandoned. However, if your favourite moment of the day involves leaving the house to get a coffee, it can be hard to grasp why this is no longer possible.

And so, it is a matter of finding creative ways of spending the time. Each Community has devised a programme of activities, including online bake-offs and fitness sessions, Skype prayer meetings, Zoom silent discos, and live Instagram “visits” to Communities in other parts of the world. One evening in Manchester, a makeshift cinema was created, using a sheet slung over a washing line in the garden, so that members of the Community, curled up in warm clothes, could watch … Frozen. In Bognor Regis, a friend of the Community has been using the 3D printer in a local college to print out PPE, and delivering it to L’Arche houses on his motorbike.

A member of L'Arche painting a rainbow to put in his window.

Back in Ipswich, it is Karolina’s job to do the food shopping for all the houses, so long as social distancing measures are in place. “I go to the supermarket early in the morning, in the slot for elderly and vulnerable people. When I return with food, everyone in the house celebrates. I throw things through the window from the car; there’s lots of laughter and excitement, everyone picking up the bags and putting them away. The team spirit is amazing. I’m learning that we are not so much a team of assistants as a team of people with disabilities and assistants together.”

There is joy and optimism. But there is also concern lest a member of the Community was to catch the virus. “To be alone in hospital when you are unwell is a frightening thing, without having processing and communication difficulties,” writes Nem, leader of L’Arche Manchester. Would a person with learning disabilities who caught Covid-19 be considered a priority for essential care, if the health services were to become severely overwhelmed?

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