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Coronavirus: Signs of lockdown wearing thin in the hub of Mid Ulster


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The main thoroughfare in Cookstown, Co Tyrone, remains busy in lockdown

The main thoroughfare in Cookstown, Co Tyrone, remains busy in lockdown

Freddie Parkinson

The main thoroughfare in Cookstown, Co Tyrone, remains busy in lockdown

Driving towards the Co Tyrone market town of Cookstown, along the dual carriageway from Moneymore, you would expect the traffic to be light given the social restrictions we are all living under.

And while the Executive at Stormont holds firm about no changes to the current lockdown, you soon get a sense that a gradual release has left the starting blocks a little earlier than the authorities might have liked.

It is a bright, sunny early afternoon, and even before you reach the town there are signs that lockdown may be wearing thin. Some people are unpacking a picnic at a table in a lay-by.

Hidden away behind Lough Neagh, you will find the people who inhabit rural Mid Ulster often feel they are forgotten about away from the bright lights of Belfast.

And examining the statistics around Covid-19, you will find the rates of the virus are a lot lower than elsewhere.

Social distancing is being well observed.

Outside the several chemists along the main street queues have formed. People stand two metres apart. Several are wearing masks. Entrance is on a one-in, one-out basis.

One thing you do notice is that most of those around the town are older.

There are no young families, few teenagers. Most shops remain closed. There is no reason for them to be there, so they are not.

Yet Cookstown is billed as the retail capital of Mid Ulster.

In a small area you will find Tesco, Asda and an M&S Foodhall. Homebase and Halfords are open.

Throw into the mix B&M Bargains and Poundland and that magnet draws them all to one central location.

As more shops have come out of their enforced hibernation, so too have the people.

At the sniff of a nibble to feed their starved retail need, many are biting.

In one convenience store there is an admittance that the number of people out and about is on the rise.

"There's definitely been an increasing number of people coming in," I am told.

"And what we're seeing is more and more older people, possibly coming back two or three times a day.

"There are very few younger people and teenagers."

Cookstown is a hub for a wide area of townlands dotted around the Sperrins and along the shores of Lough Neagh where people do not have access to chemists and supermarkets.

They all gravitate to the main town.

And while the younger generation content themselves by staying in touch through social media, that is not the way the older generation do things.

The scope for loneliness is much wider in the rural community, but perhaps that environment gives a sense that the population is shielded by the wide open spaces around them.

And this is a town without a bypass.

Everyone travelling through Mid Ulster has to go along the 1.25 miles of the main street. There is no alternative in a quirk of geography and infrastructure.

While that might explain the amount of traffic, the sense remains that the community is making a slow and gradual choice to ease back to life as they knew it.

On the other side of town, two miles along the road to Omagh, a police car is stationed at the gates of Drum Manor Forest Park - a reminder to everyone that the current advice on non-essential travel still stands.

Belfast Telegraph