Published: 06:00, 04 March 2021
| Updated: 21:28, 04 March 2021
Rogue Airbnb hosts have been accused of trying to earn a quick buck by ignoring lockdown rules as a KentOnline investigation reveals they are renting rooms out for illegal breaks.
Posing as a holidaymaker from London, our reporter Jack Dyson asked 45 of the website’s landlords across the Canterbury district if they would allow him to stay in their properties for a weekend getaway.
Such breaks are currently illegal under government coronavirus restrictions, unless for essential reasons.
But despite being told his two-night trip was purely for pleasure, 11 owners gave our man the green light, with some offering reduced prices and even admitting they have allowed others to holiday in the area.
It comes amid concerns over scores of out-of-town visitors descending on the district’s parks and beaches, which were much busier at the weekend as the sun shone and temperatures rose.
Images of large crowds and overflowing bins on Whitstable seafront on Saturday were shared widely on social media, prompting calls for “spectacularly selfish” visitors to be stopped from flocking to the coast.
Covid cases across the Canterbury district are the lowest in Kent, with the number of positive tests falling by 31% in the most recent week.
The investigation revealed 11 holiday home owners were prepared to break the rules
But many fear the rush of sun-seekers and illicit Airbnb holidaymakers to the area could undo much of the good work.
Whitstable councillor Neil Baker (Con) claims that many Covidiots have continued visiting second homes and renting out Airbnbs in the town “as normal” throughout the pandemic.
“Some people aren’t just bending the rules, they’re absolutely smashing them,” he said. “The fact they’re constantly in use suggests that people aren’t playing by the rules.
“There are people across the town who haven’t been travelling 15 minutes away to see their grandchildren, whereas people are travelling from potentially hundreds of miles away to stay in an Airbnb.”
Eleven Airbnb hosts in the district told our reporter they would accept his booking for a two-night break this weekend.
When asked if any of the neighbours would question his stay, one of the let owners suggested telling suspicious neighbours the trip was for “personal reasons”.
Another responded: “I don’t think there will be any problems.
“We have had a good many guests staying over the last six weeks or so, some on business, others just wanting to get away for a night or two.
“I don’t think there is a case for being found out.”
Under current Government guidelines, holiday accommodation must stay closed.
Operators can provide rooms to people only in a handful of cases, including if someone needs to stay overnight for a funeral, work or to visit a dying loved one.
One law-abiding host gave our reporter short shrift after receiving his booking enquiry, saying she has been inundated with approaches from opportunists trying to book non-essential stays.
When told about our investigation, she said: “It’s shameful they’re breaking the rules. I’ve got parents who live here, and children, and they’re putting them at risk.
“My Airbnb’s a really good chunk of my income, so I get really upset when I see somebody isn’t closing theirs.
“I’m sitting at one end of the spectrum and being financially crippled, while they’ve got money in the bank.
“Those who are taking bookings should be banned and those who run Airbnb should be checking that the bookings being made are legal.”
MP Sir Roger Gale, whose North Thanet constituency includes Herne Bay, has also branded the rule-breaking landlords selfish.
The veteran Tory added: “They will probably say ‘my business is on the breadline and if I don’t take people in, I’m going to go bankrupt’, but well over 100,000 people have died of this disease.”
Boris Johnson’s Covid roadmap states that self-contained accommodation, like self-catering lets and campsites, could be in line to reopen on April 12.
"It's shameful they’re breaking the rules. I’ve got parents who live here, and children, and they’re putting them at risk..."
On May 17, hotels and bed and breakfasts are set to be allowed to unlock their doors.
Gorrell councillor Chris Cornell (Lab) says he received as many as 15 reports during the first lockdown of tourists arriving in Whitstable at the crack of dawn to surreptitiously check into their holiday lets.
The politician, who is registered with the website as a “superhost”, believes the platform needs to be subject to tighter controls as it is “incredibly easy” to bend the rules.
Reacting to KentOnline's findings, Canterbury MP Rosie Duffield says those found to be breaking the rules should “face the consequences”.
“Restrictions are still firmly in place,” she said.
“Nothing has changed yet and people should not be travelling in and out of the area unless it is essential to do so.
“Any venue or host taking bookings for overnight stays is contravening the law and should face the consequences. Leisure breaks are not essential and not currently permitted.
“The Canterbury area has seen a huge decline in cases, and this is down to the efforts of everyone abiding by the rules and reflects our motivation to resume normality as soon as possible.”
A spokesman for Airbnb stresses that the firm contacts those with accounts on the platform regularly to remind hosts and guests about the rules for hosting and travel in their area.
The company says visitors in the UK must confirm during the booking process they meet one of the government’s exemptions prior to making a booking.
“We take these reports very seriously and investigate any concerns brought to our attention,” the spokesman added.
“In the past year, we’ve assisted police and local authorities in Kent with their enquiries about non-exempt stays during lockdown and found no link to Airbnb.
“Our website currently restricts bookings to guests with legal exemptions to travel during the lockdown and the vast majority of hosts follow the rules.”
Responding to local pleas about people flocking to the district, Kent crime commissioner Matthew Scott says police are “doing their best to be proactive” and are “ramping up the enforcement activity”.
But concerned residents fear infection rates in the area could start to climb again if visitors continue to arrive in their droves.
Former Canterbury City Council leader Simon Cook said on Saturday: “Having seen pictures on social media today I simply cannot believe everyone on the seafront at Whitstable is from the town.
“I know the police are trying to be pragmatic in their enforcement of lockdown restrictions but surely there comes a point that they have to at least remind people that there is a pandemic and stop them being spectacularly selfish.”
Assistant Chief Constable Claire Nix is also warning those considering travelling to Kent to steer clear of the county to avoid putting “unnecessary strain on the emergency services”.
“The warmer weekend naturally resulted in more people wanting to visit some of the more popular destinations in the county,” she said.
“While nationally the picture is improving, we are not quite out of the woods yet.
“By attending in large numbers, people are putting unnecessary strain on the emergency services and other agencies.”
In the wake of this and reports of large crowds in Margate, Sir Roger is urging the government to cap the distance revellers can travel for exercise.
“I’m not in favour of half of London tipping out into Herne Bay and Margate now. It’s too early,” he added.
“If we’re not very careful we’ll undo all the work we’ve painstakingly gone through. It’s madness.”
Council to review findings of undercover probe
KentOnline has passed its findings to Canterbury City Council, which now has the responsibility for enforcement on premises not following Covid rules.
A spokesman for the authority said: “The regulations covering guest accommodation, which includes Airbnb premises, are very clearly set out in the legislation.
“These premises are allowed to operate but only for very specific reasons, such as for people visiting a support bubble, accommodation during a house move or contractors working away from home.
“A non-essential holiday is not one of these reasons.
“We took over responsibility for enforcement on these premises at the start of February this year and have already written to a number of Airbnb operators in the district following reports that they have accepted guests when they should not have done. We have reminded them of the law and their responsibility to adhere to it.
“Failure to follow the legislation is an offence and can result in formal action by Environmental Health.
“Any public liability insurance cover a premises has may also be invalidated.
“Individuals occupying holiday accommodation may also be committing an offence, for which they can be fined or prosecuted by the police.
“We thank KentOnline for their investigation into this issue and have received the evidence they have gathered so that we can look into these cases further.”