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‘The floodgates have opened’: Life in Thetford as lockdown starts to ease

PUBLISHED: 07:02 21 May 2020 | UPDATED: 15:40 21 May 2020

Gemma and Brett Tilly, owners of Thetford Carpet Warehouse, with their sons Cam and Fin. Photo: Gemma Tilly

Gemma and Brett Tilly, owners of Thetford Carpet Warehouse, with their sons Cam and Fin. Photo: Gemma Tilly

Gemma Tilly

Across Norfolk, people are weighing up how the easing of lockdown restrictions will play out. EMILY THOMSON found out what life is starting to look like in Thetford.

Gez Chetal owner of the Thomas Paine Hotel in Thetford. Photograph Simon ParkerGez Chetal owner of the Thomas Paine Hotel in Thetford. Photograph Simon Parker

Gez Chetal, from the Thomas Paine Hotel in Thetford, is one business owner who is having to completely change the way he and his team work, as he prepares to salvage what is left of their peak season.

Mr Chetal, who has been housing the vulnerable during the pandemic, has had to re-arrange weddings, postpone his hotel’s extension and has made the decision that he will not reopen his restaurant to the general public for the rest of the year.

Instead the hotel will hire out its function rooms and hotel rooms where friends and family can pre-order afternoons teas or meals, in a safe environment.

Mr Chetal said: “We are at the height of the season now and I have never known anything like it.

The owners of the Thomas Paine Hotel have started offering its hotel rooms for friends and families to come to enjoy a meal after lockdown, but they will not be opening the restaurant to the general public. Photo: Gez ChetalThe owners of the Thomas Paine Hotel have started offering its hotel rooms for friends and families to come to enjoy a meal after lockdown, but they will not be opening the restaurant to the general public. Photo: Gez Chetal

“I don’t think I’m going to open my restaurant for the rest of the year but I have had a lot of phone calls about doing private dinners for people in my rooms.

“One lady wants a private dinner in August for eight of her family, I asked her ‘what’s the occasion?’ and she said ‘there isn’t one, I just want to get my family together’.

“Now we are planning from July onwards, but we don’t have details of how and what we can do, there is no guidance at the moment.”

Fellow Thetford business owners, Gemma and Brett Tilly, who own the Thetford Carpet Warehouse, have said since lockdown started to lift, “it is like the flood gates have opened”.

Gemma and Brett Tilly are the owners of Thetford Carpet Warehouse. Photo: Gemma TillyGemma and Brett Tilly are the owners of Thetford Carpet Warehouse. Photo: Gemma Tilly

And as families complete their stay-at-home DIY projects and makeovers, Ms Tilly said everyone is now looking for their new floors to be fitted.

Ms Tilly said: “We have been inundated with calls and emails.

“People have been at home decorating throughout lockdown, their holidays have been cancelled so they have extra money and the flooring is usually the last thing to do.

“We have a whole backlog of customers booked in after June, but we are waiting to find out from the government when we are allowed in occupied properties.

Gemma and Brett Tilly, owners of Thetford Carpet Warehouse, say they have been inundated with calls for new flooring as lockdown eases. Photo: Gemma TillyGemma and Brett Tilly, owners of Thetford Carpet Warehouse, say they have been inundated with calls for new flooring as lockdown eases. Photo: Gemma Tilly

“It’s a strange time at the moment, but I think it will be okay. Hopefully our customers will be understanding that it will take time, but we are all in the same boat.”

As well as running their own business, Mrs and Mr Tilly have been caring for and home schooling their two sons, Fin and Cam Tilly, aged 11 and 10.

And as some Thetford schools are preparing to re-open, the debate continues on whether or not is the right time for youngsters to return to education.

But Sophie Wood, 34, from Thetford, is a mother-of-three who works as a key worker and throughout the pandemic her children have been in school.

Sharon Thompson runs Meet-n-Eat at Pine Close Community Centre and facilitates the online support group 'Helping the vulnerable in Thetford. Photo: Georgia Coulson PhotographySharon Thompson runs Meet-n-Eat at Pine Close Community Centre and facilitates the online support group 'Helping the vulnerable in Thetford. Photo: Georgia Coulson Photography

Ms Wood, who is a carer, and her partner, who is a builder for social housing, have had no choice but to leave their five-year-old daughter Ariella, and ten-year-old son Ryan, in the care of the Norwich Road Academy to allow them to carry on working.

But now they are concerned about their children’s wellbeing if strict social distancing measures are enforced if more children are allowed to return on June 1.

Ms Wood said: “My children have both been at school the whole time as we are both keyworkers and have had no problem until now.

“I think it would be better if the schools waited until it’s safe for children to return without extreme measures in place.

Sharon Thompson has facilitated a support group in Thetford during the pandemic and she has made nearly 2,00 packed lunches since lockdown began. Photo: Sharon ThompsonSharon Thompson has facilitated a support group in Thetford during the pandemic and she has made nearly 2,00 packed lunches since lockdown began. Photo: Sharon Thompson

“I don’t really want that for my five-year-old. My main concern is the mental health of my children.

“Children are children and I think they are better at home. I would prefer if I didn’t have to send mine now - but I don’t have a choice.”

Sharon Thompson has been facilitating a support group in Thetford since the pandemic began and has made nearly 2,000 packed lunches for families in the town.

Despite restrictions easing, Ms Thompson has said they are as busy as ever supporting those who are in need of help.

Sophie Wood is a key worker and has been forced to leave her two children in school during lockdown. She is concerned about the strict social distance measures that might be put in place if schools re-open. Photo: Sophie WoodSophie Wood is a key worker and has been forced to leave her two children in school during lockdown. She is concerned about the strict social distance measures that might be put in place if schools re-open. Photo: Sophie Wood

She said: “It’s not slowing down at all. In many ways getting busier as a lot of people who were furloughed have found out they don’t have jobs and are struggling for money.

“Yesterday, I alone, picked up three prescriptions and five lots of shopping.

“Some of our volunteers may soon be going back to work but we are not going away, we will just adapt.

“And we will still do what we can for whoever needs us. Modify and personalise the service yes, but stop it altogether, absolutely not.”

As the community starts to navigate its way back to normal life outside of lockdown, many will be looking to Thetford Town Council to support them during these uncertain times.

And soon-to-be mayor, Councillor Mark Robinson, said he is looking forward to the challenge.

Mr Robinson said: “We didn’t envisage 2020 to pan out the way it has.

“There is not going to be a short-term fix, but I am looking forward to supporting all parts of the community.

“We need to adopt a flexible approach and I hope to encourage all three tiers of local government to work together and communicate, to help our town recover.

“I am also really keen to hear from businesses across the sector about what we as a town council can be doing to support them.”

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