Published: 06:00, 10 February 2021
| Updated: 09:44, 13 April 2021
Once famed for its status as the Garden of England, Kent is now gaining worldwide attention for more unwelcome reasons. Chris Britcher reports.
When the world was hit by the Spanish Flu in 1918, the Spanish were, perhaps not surprisingly, a little miffed.
After all, the virus which would kill 50 million people worldwide and infect a remarkable one third of the world's population, did not find its origins in Spain.
Andrew Metcalf is from PR and marketing agency Maxim
But it would forever be linked to the nation due to censorship of the media during the blood bath that was the First World War.
To cut a long story short, the media had tight restrictions on what it could print so as not to dent morale during the conflict.
And the fact a new, deadly, virus was spreading like wildfire - most likely originating from an Army base in the US but transmitting at speed across the UK, France and Germany while the final months of the conflict raged - wasn't the sort of thing deemed likely to cheer up the war-worn population.
Spain, on the other hand, was neutral, so the newspapers were free to report on the rise of cases there - which rather gave the impression to everyone else that Spain was the epicentre of the outbreak.
The nation inadvertently found itself giving the pandemic a name which would, more than 100 years later, still be accepted.
Efforts by the Spanish government to not unfairly stigmatise its population, when the name first emerged, fell on deaf ears.
The big question now is whether Kent faces a similar problem as a strain of Covid, first detected in the county last September, continues its march across borders and continents, taking the county's name with it.
Along with South Africa it is increasingly becoming intrinsically linked with the pandemic – and the World Health Organisation has advised against naming strains after places.
So can Kent's brand survive the stigma?
“While always seeking to be positive," says Andrew Metcalfe, director of Tunbridge Wells-based PR, marketing and public affair agency Maxim, "we must accept that damage has been done to the Kent brand, and we must all hope that it is short-term.
“While people’s memories are often very short, the internet’s isn’t and there’s the risk Kent will be synonymous with the variant.
“Given that Covid emerged from a specific place, it’s not surprising the government would give the newly identified variant a geographical tag, it’s just unfortunate that they chose Kent as its name, rather than South East, or even England, as was done with the South African or Brazilian mutation.
"For many businesses, especially those in hospitality, tourism and leisure, the emergence of the Kent variant, on top of the impact of months of lockdown will have been a step too far."
Long linked with being drenched in history, our hops, our oasthouses, our impressive coastline and pretty villages, the county has found itself repositioned in recent months.
"As a county," explains Jo James, chief executive of the Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce, "we have a strong national and international brand as the 'Garden of England’.
"Kent now being synonymous with a variant of Covid on a global platform is a concern from a tourism and inward investment perspective but one I feel will not have a long-term impact.
"Once globally the virus is under control and consumers start to travel and businesses look to invest, with a county with so much on offer, there is no reason why it should not return to business as usual."
As the business expert adds, the county is fortunate to have some highly polished organisations in Locate in Kent and Visit Kent which spend their time promoting the county in terms of inward investment and tourism.
Despite Donald Trump's best efforts during his time in office, China somehow side-stepped having its name formally linked to the virus.
Although that is primarily due to guidelines issued by the World Health Organisation six years ago which stated countries should not be used in disease names to "avoid" causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups".
The rules on variants, on the other hand, don't seem to apply.
And it seems Kent, Brazil and South Africa are the only three locations to be so closely identified with the latest twists in this health crisis.
Adds Andrew Metcalfe, a man frequently called upon to help repair the reputation of a brand which has taken a public pummelling: "What matters most is what we do now. If we are to rebuild a positive reputation of Kent as a place to visit, live, work and invest in then we need to tackle the issue head-on.
"We need to tackle the difficult questions: What does Kent stand for as a brand? How is Kent perceived by local, national and international audiences? What makes it different from other places? Once we can answer those fundamental questions we can develop a campaign to help businesses, to support our communities and rebuild our economy. Everything should be up for discussion, nothing should be off limits.
“It’s then all about creating a coordinated campaign with strong and consistent messages that utilise traditional media as well as digital marketing, over the coming months.
“We also need our business community to play their part and tell their good news. There’s a collective responsibility that will require our communities and politicians to back the campaign, support growth, and for all of us to back our local businesses.”
Quite where the first Kent mutation of the virus was first discovered remains something of a tightly guarded secret.
A recent report in the Independent suggested Margate was the location for the first case - although conflicting reports have also pointed the finger at Canterbury.
There is no suggestion either offers a particular breeding ground for the virus' mutation - in fact scientists believe the illness would have been contracted by someone with a poor immune system - effectively allowing the virus to hone its method of attack and from there it spread rapidly.
First detected on September 21, it was deemed responsible for the relentless rise in infections which saw the county go from one of the lowest infection rates to the country's highest by December.
By the time Boris Johnson was delivering tidings of doom and gloom and the cancellation of Christmas for much of the UK, it was apparent the 'Kent variant' was a new strain which came with a 70% higher transmission rate which, coupled with it rapidly rising to become the most dominant strain of the virus, alarmed many and, ultimately led to the third national lockdown in which we continue to wallow.
France closed its borders, such was the international reaction and Kent laid claim not only to offering the new strain its colloquialism - after all, B.1.1.7 isn't nearly as catchy - but also turned into a temporary car park as lorry drivers were effectively told they weren't allowed to leave, temporarily at least.
The Kent variant has now spread as far as the US where it is spreading rapidly with a spate of cases in California and Florida in particular.
It faces competition, however, from the South Africa variant of the virus which sparked the recent spate of 'surge testing' in a host of locations, among them Maidstone.
Most worrying, perhaps, is that the Kent variant has now developed the same mutation as the South Africa version in some cases.
That threatens to throw a spanner in the works of the, so far at least, remarkable vaccine roll-out in the UK, with early test reports suggesting some vaccines - most notably the heavily UK-government backed Oxford/AstraZeneca jab - offering considerably reduced protection.
The South Africa and Kent Mark II variations appear to be able to dodge the antibodies generated fuelling fears the vaccination programme could be significantly wrong-footed.
However, amid plenty of government reassurance, scientists are already at work to tweak the vaccines to provide booster jabs with the ingredients to help the body fight the new variants.
For now, at least, Kent may have to come to terms with the fact one of its biggest new exports is a strain of a virus which has brought the world to its knees.