‘Like the English civil war’: Covid crisis inflames neighbour disputes | World news

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A couple are having raucous parties in flagrant breach of the “rule of six”. An elderly woman with symptoms faces the fury of other residents by touching a communal door. A music teacher is imposing her students’ discordant notes on the flat downstairs. And a small child following an exercise routine has prompted a neighbour to declare: “I want to kill Joe Wicks.”

Over six months of the coronavirus crisis, community relations have been strained to the point that one concerned retiree in the south-west told the Guardian: “It’s like the English civil war.”

Now, with control measures ramping up once more and fears that a second wave is here, mediators who work to resolve disputes through the ceiling or over the garden fence say they are seeing a surge in requests for help – and expect a lockdown in winter to push tensions to a new high.

“The problems will get worse as people are home more,” said Julie Farrell, of Manchester-based mediator Solution Talk. “If the neighbours are being difficult and you can’t go out because of the weather, that’s going to cause a problem, whether it’s breaking lockdown rules or someone trimming your hedge. Your home is your castle, isn’t it?”

“There’s a feeling of, ‘Here we go again, another six months of these people,’” said Mike Talbot, psychotherapist and founder of UK Mediation. “A lot of us were able to hang on before, but now it’s going to continue, these problems are coming out of the woodwork.”


In interviews with mediators and submissions from Guardian readers, a picture emerged of a flipside to happier reports of neighbours pulling together: longstanding issues such as loud music, DIY projects, social media rows and the domination of shared spaces, being exacerbated by the difficulty of escape during lockdowns.

“People’s levels of tolerance have diminished over the period, until now every little thing somebody does can blow up into a major issue,” said Laura Kirkpatrick, also of Solution Talk. “For a lot of people there’s nothing else to focus on.”

Farrell said she was even aware of a few cases where “in a tit-for-tat dispute, people will employ any kind of measure they can and make false allegations about breaches to settle a score”. In the end, she said diplomatically, those who disagree must “respect each other’s truth”.

Meanwhile, with the return of stricter social distancing guidelines and Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and Matt Hancock all weighing in on whether good citizens should “shop a neighbour”, a new hint of suspicion has been added to existing issues. The police’s 101 reporting line has been “swamped” with complaints about the rule of six, requiring the recruitment of additional staff, it was reported last week.

“It’s becoming quite a significant thing,” said Talbot. “The police get calls and they don’t usually go round and knock on the door waving a truncheon, so they get passed on to us.”

Nick Handley, service coordinator at West Sussex Mediation Service, said his charity was seeking new volunteers and funding to cope with the “dramatic” escalation in workload. “We’ve had a stark increase in referrals from the police because of Covid neighbour disputes,” he said. “This idea of snitches and grasses on people who aren’t complying is a big part of it.”

Submissions from Guardian readers asked to give their views were split between those appalled by the idea of reporting on their neighbours, others afraid to do so, and those who felt they had no choice but were disappointed by police inaction. With no change in sight, one resident of Trafford, Manchester, where local restrictions ban other households from visiting, said: “Now I too have individual visitors. Screw being nice and proper – my sacrifice means nothing if half of the people are going to ignore the rules. It just brings you pain from being isolated.”

Sam (not his real name), a retiree in south-west England, said he had been laughed at for wearing a mask earlier in the crisis and remained angry at neighbours who failed to follow the rules. “You can be in one household doing the right things and see your actions negated by someone else,” he said. “I don’t think I would ever dob a neighbour in, and anyway, if you do say anything, you just get a mouthful of abuse.”

Given this climate, London-based Calm Mediation launched a new helpline to deal with the fallout of the pandemic and saw a significant spike in its caseload, said community mediation coordinator Ruby Joseph. “In any given week I’m supposed to have 25-30 rolling cases, but at times it’s been more like 50,” she said. The group has taken on two full-time and two part-time additional staff to cope.

Like most of the mediators, Joseph suggested that noise is “the number one problem”.

May Millward, a project officer at Scottish Mediation, said the charity had launched a coronavirus hotline in May and seen a 50% increase in calls on normal times, including one person exasperated by music lessons upstairs. “People were more or less happy to go along with it during the first lockdown,” she said. “But now there’s been a little taste of freedom, going back into it … people’s patience is at a limit.”

Source: The Guardian
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