A COUNCILLOR has defended spending four months at his French holiday home while the city battled Covid - saying it was "the safest thing to do".

Husband and wife councillors Tom Druitt and Alex Phillips decided to travel to the French Alps to visit friends at the start of March last year and Cllr Druitt has decided to speak out after residents asked questions at a council meeting.

The couple left a month after Brighton's high-profile first case of coronavirus.

At the time of their departure there were 114 cases in the UK and nearly four times as many in France - 423. But Cllr Druitt said they did not expect their trip to be affected as "it was still very much a Chinese problem".

After seeing friends, the pair moved to the holiday home they own in France at a time when the country had locked down but the UK had not, with British citizens still advised to return home.

They spent four months at their French property, which was bought partly using inheritance money and rented out when they are not there, while Brighton and Hove recorded dozens of deaths.

Lockdown restrictions eventually started to ease across the UK in May 2020. The Regency ward representatives stayed at their French home until returning to Brighton in July. While in France they attended council meetings virtually on the internet, the same as their colleagues.

Cllr Druitt told The Argus: "Everyone knew where we were. It was no secret. We attended every council meeting and did case work - we just did it from there because that seemed like the safest thing to do.

"We took the view that actually it was safer to stay where we were, the practical difference of us being stuck in a bedroom here or stuck in a bedroom over there was zero."

Cllr Druitt and his family went to France on March 5.

He said: "As far as it was being reported in the media in the UK, it was still very much a Chinese problem, with a hotspot in Iran and something in Italy.

"When we went, there was no news of France being affected or the UK."

The World Health Organization declared Covid a public health emergency of international concern on January 30, 2020.

Brighton and Hove reported its first case of Covid-19 in early February, when resident Steve Walsh contracted the virus in Singapore.

Mr Walsh had then gone on a trip to the French Alps, where people who shared lodgings with him also contracted the illness.

The Argus reported extensively on this, running a front page on February 7 with the headline "Killer virus in the city".

In the following days, a number of people in the city were told to self-isolate, while there was panic buying of hand sanitiser and face masks.

On February 11, the council called an unprecedented emergency press conference because they "knew people were worried".

At the end of February, England's chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty warned that onward transmission of the virus was "just a matter of time in my review".

On February 27 the BBC reported that the Cabinet Office had been in communication with local authorities about their "mass death preparedness".

Cllr Druitt and Cllr Phillips spent the first two weeks of their stay with friends in the Alps.

The couple had been planning to return home via train in on March 10 but this was cancelled on the eve of their journey.

Cllr Druitt said his train journey back to England was repeatedly cancelled until services were suspended.

He said airports, car hire and coach services were also shut down due to the spread of the disease.

"There was physically no way back and the guidance in France was that you had to stay at home," he said.

"There were no flights from where we were and we obviously try not to fly when we can as well."

France gradually introduced a number of restrictions, closing schools and universities and then pubs, restaurants, cinemas and nightclubs.

On March 16, President Emmanuel Macron announced that a full lockdown would begin the next day.

When this came into force, there was a restriction on all travel, with a number of exceptions including seeking medical help and brief individual exercise, according to reports.

People leaving home were required to carry ID and to have a signed declaration explaining their reasons for travelling, otherwise they could be fined.

Cllr Druitt said: "We then heard that the French government was tightening the lockdown even further and restricting travel between parts of France.

"We do have a place in France, that's no secret... we were overstaying our welcome a bit with our friends. We borrowed our friend's car and stayed there."

The couple moved to their holiday home, bought previously when Cllr Druitt sold a flat in Scotland and inherited money following his mother's death.

On March 23, Boris Johnson announced the UK lockdown with people advised to stay home to stop the spread of the disease.

The Argus has looked at internet archives to check government advice on travel at this point.

We found an article on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) website from March 29 which advised "British people travelling abroad to return to the UK now, if commercial flights are still available".

The FCO warned that international travel was becoming "very limited as air routes close, land borders close and new restrictions are put in place that prevent flights from leaving".

Although freedom of movement was largely restricted during the first lockdown, on May 1 the FCO said "there remain commercial options to return to the UK from France".

While at their French property, Cllr Druitt and Cllr Phillips continued to work as the city council - then led by Labour - dealt with the impact of Covid, taking a number of measures including installing emergency cycle lanes across the city.

During this time, essential workers kept the country running, many risking contracting the virus in the process.

Lockdown measures started to lift in the UK and France from May 10, with some schools in England re-opening on June 1 and non-essential shops on June 15.

While on June 23, the Prime Minister announced that the "national hibernation" had come to an end.

By the end of June, Brighton and Hove had recorded 162 deaths linked to coronavirus.

Cllr Druitt said the couple eventually returned home during July - although he is unable to remember the exact date.

When asked about this by The Argus, Cllr Druitt said: "I didn't want to take my family on a train at that time, without knowing what the state of play was.

"We took a decision to wait until both countries had unlocked and they were gradually getting back to normal.

"In uncertain times, you put your family's health first."

Residents previously raised concerns about councillors living outside the city.

Two members of the public asked questions about the matter at a meeting of the full council in October.

One resident, Laura King, said: “You can only be a councillor if you live in the city, so if these councillors have moved abroad they need to resign.”

Another resident, Andy Macay, asked the council whether the accepted rule for councillors is that they should live in the area they represent.

Council leader Phelim Mac Cafferty told the meeting there are a number of grounds for qualifying for election and to continue to hold office after being elected, though "they are not, however, limited to residents in the local authority area".

Cllr Mac Cafferty added: “What we are talking about 18 months ago were people’s circumstances that meant they were perhaps away from the city council area for a period of time.

“The pandemic did things like stop travel. It meant that there were lockdowns not just here, not just in Europe, but all over the world.

“During that period of time, they had caring duties as well. They may have needed to support friends or families elsewhere where restrictions allowed

“Unexpected circumstances did occur over the past two years, such as people being unable to return for periods of time due to lockdown.”

Earlier this year, The Argus reported how Cllr Phillips claimed a total of £1,458 for childcare for the financial year ending April 2021.

Cllr Druitt says that none of this money related to the time when they were in France.

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