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Communities are divided as Kent prepares to enter Tier 3 tomorrow

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In a move which has set Tory MPs against their own Prime Minister, all of Kent will be under tier three restrictions from tomorrow.

With some of the highest infection rates in the country, we are joining the likes of Bradford, Bristol and Newcastle under the strictest rules as England is brought out of the second lockdown.

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Is Tier 3 dividing Kent's communities?
Is Tier 3 dividing Kent's communities?

But the decision to enact tier three countywide has brought the people of Kent to loggerheads.

While places like Swale, Thanet, Medway and Gravesham suffer with the highest coronavirus infection rates in England, the districts of west Kent such as Tunbridge Wells and Ashford have comparatively low numbers.

Pubs and restaurants in Sevenoaks town centre, which has an average infection rate of just 47.8 per 100,000, will be under the same rules as businesses in the most Covid-hit areas in England.

Have irreparable cracks formed between people living in west Kent and those living in more virus-stricken areas in the east - and could this divide cause permanent damage to our communities?

'We're being punished for the deeds of others'

Hever Castle chief exec left frustrated by areas like Thanet and Swale

Duncan Leslie, chief executive at Hever Castle, in Edenbridge, has spoken out about his frustration over having to go into the toughest restrictions.

According to the latest government data the area around the castle has had fewer than three cases of Covid-19.

Mr Leslie said: "I think it's hugely disappointing. I was worried when I could see the cases going up in the north coast of Kent, but I concluded that the government would allow west Kent to be in a different tier, because there isn't an awful lot of interaction between those communities and Tunbridge Wells and where Hever is.

"I think it is proven if you like by the fact that if there was a lot of interaction between those communities, then why have we such low levels of infection when they have such high?"

Hever Castle will remain closed from December 2 but the gardens will be open
Hever Castle will remain closed from December 2 but the gardens will be open

Mr Leslie alluded to the fact that he believes the high infection rates in areas like east Kent are due to people not following the government guidelines.

He said: "I think the people here in west Kent on the whole have been following the rules through the whole year, and they've made a lot of sacrifices to do that.

"It's scary that there seems to be a not insignificant number of people believing the whole coronavirus is a made up thing and not real.

"We have no influence over those who live 40 or 60 miles from us - it seems a little unfair that we're essentially going to punished for the deeds of other people."

The chief executive added: "Liverpool doesn't get put in the same tier as Manchester, and the distance between those two cities is 40 miles - the distance from here to Thanet is twice that."

The people of Thanet were attacked by a Sunday Times columnist over its high infection rate
The people of Thanet were attacked by a Sunday Times columnist over its high infection rate

'Virus-addled plebs'

Tensions were further stoked on Sunday after the columnist of a national paper shared his thoughts on Kent being placed in tier three, including insulting the people of Thanet.

Rod Liddle referred to residents of Margate, Ramsgate and Broadstairs as 'virus-addled plebs' in his Sunday Times piece.

He wrote: "The county of Kent was placed bodily in tier 3, all because the ghastly, virus-addled plebs in Thanet can't stop breathing over one another as they swallow jellied eels in some dilapidated phlegm-strewn seaside slum.

"Does the government not understand that we in proper Kent have nothing in common with those awful people?"

Cllr George Kup condemned Mr Liddle's remarks
Cllr George Kup condemned Mr Liddle's remarks

It is understood Mr Liddle lives in the county, though it could not be confirmed exactly where.

The article received backlash from people across Thanet, including Birchington councillor George Kup who said he was "absolutely disgusted" by Mr Liddle's comments.

Lynda Cooper from Westgate-on-Sea took to Twitter to strike out at Mr Liddle's offensive piece: "I live in Thanet and am very proud of my community and how everyone has pulled together to support each other during this pandemic.

"We also have hard working, dedicated people who put others before self - can Rod say the same of his community?"

Margate grandmother Judy Gregory went for an altogether more direct approach, tweeting: "Who's Rod Liddle? The man's an idiot and a snob."

Meanwhile the head of a Thanet charity told KentOnline he is publicly challenging Mr Liddle to a debate regarding his remarks.

Alexander Roarke, from poverty charity Thanet Iceberg, said he was shocked by the Sunday Times columnist's remarks.

Mr Roarke also said he does not believe that infection rates in Thanet are higher because people are ignoring the government guidelines.

He said: "It's not true, it's not fair - I think people in this area take it as seriously as any area.

"I do not believe that the 'inconsiderate chavs and oiks' of Thanet are deliberately spreading it any more than Rod Liddle's Tunbridge Wells are.

Alexander Roarke said he challenges Rod Liddle to debate him on his recent takedown piece
Alexander Roarke said he challenges Rod Liddle to debate him on his recent takedown piece

"It's ridiculous, we are all in the same storm together, but some of us are in different boats.

"In Tunbridge Wells the houses are a lot further apart, when you come to Thanet it's a much smaller area and more densely packed - does that mean we're not trying? Of course we're trying."

Efforts have been made to contact Mr Liddle regarding Mr Roarke's invitation to debate.

What is a Swexit?

Amongst the backlash and debate raging online, one tongue-in-cheek petition suggested the removal of Swale from the rest of the county, resulting in a 'Swexit.'

The 'Swexit' petition calls for hard borders and checks on the border of Swale
The 'Swexit' petition calls for hard borders and checks on the border of Swale

Joe, creator of the jokey campaign, wrote: "In light of the news that the entire county of Kent is to be placed in Tier 3 of coronavirus restrictions due to the selfishness of certain areas (Swale!).

"I propose a referendum removing Swale from Kent, imposing a hard border with rigorous checks and giving Swale to a third world backwater where they belong - maybe somewhere like Essex."

The district has the highest infection rate in England, with 559.7 cases per 100,000 (government figures for week to November 25).

One landlord in Swale's Queenborough - which has a particularly high infection rate of 682 per 100,000 - told KentOnline that he would be frustrated if he was a landlord in an area with lower infection rates and still having to remain closed.

Chris Collier, manager of The Admiral's Arm, said: "If I had my business sitting in Ashford I'd be spitting feathers right about now about Swale and the Isle of Sheppey."

Freddie is concerned the restaurant will lose their takeaway business to nearby restaurants open in tier two
Freddie is concerned the restaurant will lose their takeaway business to nearby restaurants open in tier two

Hopping the border

One newly-launched pub and restaurant suffering closure under tier three risks losing its local customers to businesses open a few miles away in East Sussex, a tier two district.

Freddie Innes, MasterChef The Professionals semi-finalist and head chef at The Plough Ivy Hatch near Sevenoaks, has been travelling from his East Sussex home daily to cook takeaways from the pub kitchen.

But now he's worried the residents of Ivy Hatch and nearby will instead visit restaurants under the less intense restrictions instead.

He said: "We're shocked by the way they've done things because the Tunbridge Wells and Sevenoaks area has next to nothing of the virus, and we've been taken down because of the likes of Thanet and Swale - and they're miles away from us.

The Plough will have to remain closed, despite low local coronavirus rates and being close to the East Sussex border. Pic: Google Maps
The Plough will have to remain closed, despite low local coronavirus rates and being close to the East Sussex border. Pic: Google Maps

"We're doing a lot of takeaways right now, but if they die down because the locals are going to 'we'll just go to a tier two area so we can actually sit down and have a meal', it's going to have a knock-on effect and be very difficult for us."

In a bid to boost interest in the restaurant, Freddie is launching 'The Plough at home', a service where meals will be prepared and then customers will be able to finish them off in the comfort of their own kitchen,

He added: "I'm driving to work into a tier three but it doesn't feel like I am - it's all in the countryside, it seems completely safe and everyone around the area is the same."

The Kent Sussex border is not the only area left feeling confused by the tier boundaries.

Twitter user Cands, who lives in Bexley, tweeted: "Lol I live on a road that falls under Bexley borough (tier 2) and on the same road about 400yds down they’re in tier 3 because they fall under Dartford Kent - where is the logic?"

The letter Kent MPs sent to Matt Hancock
The letter Kent MPs sent to Matt Hancock

The political backlash

Several of the county's MPs have become so frustrated by the blanket tier three restrictions that they could be among those standing up against the government today.

A meeting has taken place between seven of Kent's MPs and the health secretary Matt Hancock, as the Prime Minister hopes to stave off a rebellion over the perceived unfairness of the restrictions in some parts of England.

The county's MPs unhappy with the blanket tier three restrictions are Greg Clark for Tunbridge Wells; Damian Collins for Folkestone and Hythe; Tracey Crouch for Chatham and Aylesford; Natalie Elphicke for Dover and Deal; Helen Grant for Maidstone; Damian Green for Ashford; and Tom Tugendhat for Tonbridge and Malling.

Speaking to KentOnline last week, Mr Tugendhat said: "I can understand why this has been done for parts of Kent, but I don't understand why it has been done for the areas around Tonbridge, Edenbridge, Tunbridge Wells - where our community went into lockdown in tier one and somehow seems to have emerged at tier three."

Tom Tugendhat speaking on Thursday when the tiers were first announced

He added: "I know what we've been seeing in our community and frankly it's extremely concerning that we're not being looked at at boroughs but only being treated as a single county."

But not all of Kent's MPs are in agreement over the idea of borough-specific lockdown rules.

North Thanet MP Sir Roger Gale and Sittingbourne and Sheppey MP Gordon Henderson have both ruled out the idea of a district by district plan, saying it risks even further confusion about restrictions.

The two MPs represent areas where the infection rate has risen sharply to a point where they are among the worst in country.

Cllr Roger Gough
Cllr Roger Gough

Unlike their colleagues, they say that it is vital to move ahead with the restrictions as they are.

Meanwhile Kent County Council (KCC) has also sent a letter to Health Secretary Matt Hancock raising concerns about the county-wide approach, suggesting there is a "strong case" to move to a district level.

Council leader Roger Gough (Con), told his cabinet the pandemic was "more widespread" than a "couple" of Kent districts, but was worried about the damage to the local economy.

Cllr Gough, who said it was "doubly important" to receive military aid for mass testing, said: "We are not denying that there is quite a widespread problem here. There are trends which are very, very concerning.

"At the same time we have to be very mindful of the impact that these restrictions have on our businesses."

Read more: All the latest news from Kent

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