A year on: double whammy of Covid and Brexit on Thatcham ex-pat's holiday let business in France
Allison Feeley says 'UK government are not interested, the French are sympathetic, but seem hand tied or unable to help'
ONE year ago, as the UK was about to go into its first national lockdown, the Newbury Weekly News spoke to Allison Feeley who runs a B&B and holiday let business in southwest France with her husband Nick.
They had already been under strict regualtions on the continent for a week, and Allison was able to provide an insight into lockdown life.
We caught up with Mrs Feeley last week, to find out what life in France is like a year on, when coronavirus has not only taken its hold across the globe, but the effects of Brexit have also started to be felt for ex-pats living and working abroad.
Allison House grew up in Thatcham and Bucklebury and went to Kennet School. When she married Nick Feeley, they moved to Newtown Common, where she ran her own consultancy business. The couple moved to France 10 years ago, along with their two children Megan and Abigail, to start the holiday business.
A year ago, when the bookings for their gites and b&b business had all but dried up, Mrs Feeley was pragmatic and optimistic for the future. She said at the time: “We are lucky. We have some land and we have plenty to do. We're getting the vegetable beds in good order, because growing our own means we don't have to go out."
This year, the outlook is just as bleak for their business, in fact the situation has got worse.
“We transferred everyone who had booked last summer to this summer. I kept the prices at 2020 rates and everybody was happy and confident they would be enjoying their summer break here in 2021.
“But there is still so much uncertainty and we can’t afford to have another empty summer. People understandably will want to leave the decision as to whether they come here or not to the last minute, but from a business point of view that is not possible.
“At some point soon I will have to ask whether our clients are willing to commit to coming – and therefore possibly forgoing their deposit if they change their mind – or whether they would like to cancel now, so that I have a chance to offer the bookings to the domestic market.”
The uptake of vaccines in France is extremely slow, not just because of the issues over supply and the AstraZeneca ‘scare-mongering’, but also because of general lethargy, Mrs Feeley said.
She gives one example of a village hall where more than 3,000 vaccines had been booked in and only 200 people turned up.
She said: “People here seem more reluctant to be vaccinated in general and the bottom line is if not enough of us over here have the vaccine then UK visitors will be understandably reluctant to visit – even if they are allowed to – and that will decimate our business.”
France is currently experiencing another surge in coronavirus cases, particularly in Paris and other bigger cities.
“In the last week, Paris and surrounding areas are now in full lockdown as well as an area of SE France,” she explained. “The rest of France just have curfew from 7pm to 6am. Stupidly people were given prior warning of lockdown so many thousands have dispersed from Paris into the wider countryside, particularly the Brittany area which means the virus may now be taken to these areas potentially causing more covid spread – ludicrous!”
When Covid-19 hit, the Feeleys were already having to deal with the UK’s pending break away from the European Union.
“The combination of Covid and Brexit has been an absolute nightmare,” said Mrs Feeley.
“There are so many things that have not been thought through and ex-pats like us living abroad have been caught out with so many day-to-day things that we have to sort out and we don’t feel we have a voice at all. The UK government are not interested, the French are sympathetic, but seem hand tied or unable to help.”
Many things that were taken for granted when we were EU members have now been taken away, such UK driving licences are no longer valid in France for ex-pat residents.
“The French authorities are now saying that anyone who has not got a valid French licence or has not reapplied for one before January 2022, must retake their test in France,” she added. “The minimum number of lessons required before you take your test is 10, so that's about a thousand Euros right there. There are many elderly people who have retired to France - are they really going to have to retake their test?"
Mrs Feeley said that cars were also an issue.
"If you owned a UK car it was ok to drive it in France while the change of residency status was taking place, but it seems since 31 December 2020 the net is being tightened,” she said. “Since Brexit, UK cars owned by French residents are now liable for duty and/or vat once the vehicle is registered in France. Pre Brexit the duty and vat was not payable. This will now need to be taken into consideration as part of any moving costs to Europe.
“We transferred our car a few years ago, but for people who haven't yet, they can be hit with import duty on their UK cars, which in many instances are not worth as much as the tax now required."
Add to this the fact that UK citizens are not able to drive home because of coronavirus – and therefore can't sell their car and then return to France and buy a domestic vehicle – people who have lived in France for many years are being hit with huge bills.
“Some people have set up petitions to ask for help from the UK government, but raising awareness of the petitions and our plight is difficult.”
Mrs Feeley has not seen her daughters who are now in the UK or the rest of her family, who are still in Thatcham, for more than a year.
“I don’t know when we will be able to visit friends and family again as well as stock up on those well loved food items that are our little luxuries. I won’t even be able to have my Greggs sausage roll for the drive home.”
Many supermarkets in France have an ‘ex-pats’ corner where they stock food that is popular from home.
“Right now, they can’t afford to restock those shelves because the import duty on the goods is too high,” she said. “Many companies have gone out of business because they can’t afford to trade any more. I like Marmite but I’m not paying six euros for a small jar (£6).”
There are many other more serious issues too – health cover, pensions and protection for businesses – which those who have made their home abroad are now concerned about.
They feel that nobody is looking out for them and they feel disenfranchised, Mrs Feeley added.
“We have no voice and no vote,” she said. “Brexit and Covid is a double whammy – the two together are a disaster.”