First we thought Covid would come in July, when restrictions were lifted and tourists and second home owners escaped the confines of their cities and headed down the M5 for fresh air at the coast. Then we thought it would come in September, when tourists and second home owners headed back up the motorway, leaving the virus behind them.
Rachel Stevenson www.theguardian.com
But coronavirus rates have remained persistently low in Cornwall since the beginning of the pandemic and for many of us, including myself and my family, the crisis has seemed far removed from our corner of the world.
Well, Covid is in Cornwall now. Confirmed cases have tripled in just the past week and public health officials are warning the virus is almost “out of control” here. At the beginning of December, Cornwall was one of only two places in the country enjoying the freedoms of tier 1 with just 18 cases per 100,000 people. Now there are more than 300 cases per 100,000 people and the rate is still rising.
“Cases were low compared with the rest of the country for some time, but now it is quite different,” Rachel Wigglesworth, director of public health in Cornwall, said last week. “The message now is that it is very serious and the virus is very nearly out of control in Cornwall.”
Feeling extremely fortunate to live here, we have at times been a little smug during the course of the pandemic. My husband had a kidney transplant 10 years ago and so needs to shield, as the drugs that stop his body rejecting the kidney make him highly vulnerable to the virus. Thank God we’re not in London, we’ve said countless times while watching the news. As friends and family in other areas of the UK sent messages of despair about lockdown life with children and nowhere to go, I would sheepishly send photos of my kids larking about on the beach.
I don’t blame people for travelling here when the restrictions allowed it – I would probably have done the same. But tourism is a divisive issue in Cornwall at the best of times. Having a deadly virus on the loose was always going to fuel age-old Cornish jokes about destroying the Tamar Bridge and sealing Cornwall off from the rest of the country.
While outsiders are being squarely blamed in many social media postings, public health officials here say there is very little evidence to suggest they are behind the spike in cases. Community and household transmission between friends, family and colleagues over the festive season are the main source, with the new variant making transmission easier. “We are only now seeing the impact of Christmas gatherings and things are clearly going to get worse,” Wigglesworth said.
Did people in Cornwall let their guard down? Did, perhaps, a little bit of complacency creep in after so many months of low rates? Of course most of us have stuck rigidly to the rules, but I’ll admit there were times when I may have been too relaxed. Back in the relatively carefree days of early December, I went out for dinner with a few friends. We were within the tier 1 guidelines, but looking at it now, the restaurant was pretty busy. I’m racked with guilt at how reckless that now seems.
What worries so many people here is that while Cornwall is well served with ice-cream kiosks and surf shops, it isn’t so well served with healthcare facilities. There is only one major hospital and there are only 15 intensive care beds in the county, although this can be increased. The hospital is already preparing for a surge in admissions, having seen the number of Covid inpatients more than double since the end of December.
Covid was probably always going to get to Cornwall, especially given how easily the new variant spreads. We may still have our beaches and fresh air, but we are now like many other parts of the country, anxiously waiting to see how our health services cope over the coming weeks.