A race against time: how the virus caught up with Hastings

View of Hastings
Wide open spaces: a view of Hastings from the Country Park above the Old Town and overlooking West Hill and the Castle.
Photo credit: Rick Dillon

It was easy last year, after the first scary months of the pandemic, for those of us living in the south-east to relax our guard and even for a certain level of complacency to creep in. No longer. Now we’re on high alert. So what has changed?

Hastings may hold some of the answers. 

Over most of last year it consistently recorded a very low rate of infection, bucking trends that seemed to make people in poorer areas more vulnerable to the virus. In 2019 it was ranked 13th out of 317 local council areas in England on indicators of deprivation, and the most deprived town in the south-east. 

With its long seafront, beaches, many parks and long-distance trails, Hastings provided an ideal environment for people to meet and socialise safely outside − especially during the long stretch of fine weather over the spring and summer.

Those positive elements were lost with the advent of autumn and the far more virulent mutation of the Covid-19 virus. 

In his Twitter feed Faisal Islam, tracking the uptick of infection and the link with the more highly transmissible strain of the infection, seems to have identified the emergence of the new variant in north Kent. The spread from there was rapid, and the turn-around of a previously positive picture in Hastings dramatic. At the beginning of the New Year the rate per 100,000 resident population recorded for the seven days to 5 January was 1,100, significantly above the national average.

While the rapid escalation of infections can be partly attributed to the significantly greater transmissibility of the new Covid variant, its emergence has unluckily coincided with colder weather and people spending more time inside in often – particularly in Hastings – cramped and poor housing conditions. 

As of January 16, there had been 174 deaths in Hastings – up from 12 at the beginning of December. The number of cases of Covid-19 recorded since the end of March last year reached 5,220 – up from 752 on December 1.

The Christmas festivities, along with more time indoors, bears out latest research which points to the simple act of speaking to each other in an enclosed space as one of the key factors in the spread of the disease.

The outside of the Jenny Lind pub in Hastings Old Town, photographed during the first lockdown in 2020. A sign on a decorated window says: We're all in this together.
An upbeat message at the closed Jenny Lind pub in Hastings Old Town, in the early days of lockdown last year.
Photo credit: Rick Dillon

The return of children to school in the autumn and the re-opening of restaurants, hair salons and high-street shops may well have contributed to the spread of the virus over the past three months.

But even taking all this into account and recognising that no UK government in living memory has had to deal with a public health crisis of this kind, it is impossible to ignore the part that the government itself has played in the escalation of the pandemic.

Should not the government and its advisers have foreseen these factors?

From the infamous trip that Dominic Cummings made to Barnard Castle during the first lockdown to Stanley Johnson appearing on frequent occasions in public places without a mask, and Matt Hancock being caught unmasked in a chauffeur-driven car, it appears as though “it’s one rule for them, and another for us”. A recent Ipsos MORI poll found that 47% of people felt that key government figures’ and associates’ lack of adherence to rules led to the public likewise ignoring them. 

Indecisiveness and constant changes of direction from the government have undermined the public’s confidence in the system and their willingness to follow the latest advice from no 10 Downing Street. So no surprise then that a few are breaking, or bending, the rules. This in turn has enabled the government to shift the blame to the public at large for rising cases.

Even as the vaccination roll-out is gathering pace, the confusion continues.

“I’m absolutely fed up with the over-promising and under-delivering,” one GP based in an East Sussex practice tells me, on condition of anonymity. “We are at the receiving end of the public’s frustration and anger, and every day receive abuse on our phones. The information that we are being fed changes daily on when we can expect to receive our first batch of the Astra Zeneca vaccine, so co-ordinating with all the agencies is made incredibly difficult.”

Nadim Zarhawi, the government minister in charge of vaccine deployment, said of the national situation in an interview on Radio 4’s Today programme, that it is “a race against time”. 

Let’s hope that the vaccination programme can enable us to get ahead of the virus and win the race. Only time will tell.

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