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Why is Swale such a covid hotspot?

What makes Swale, and particularly the Isle of Sheppey, such a high risk when it comes to catching coronavirus?

Today the borough was named as having the worst infection rate in England, after it overtook Hull with a rate of 631.7 cases per 100,000 people.

Face masks are now mandatory on public transport. File image
Face masks are now mandatory on public transport. File image

Today an emergency meeting was held in private. It was called by Swale Borough Council to discuss action after cases continued to rise.

You may have thought Sheppey, being an island, would have been simple to isolate by closing the bridges, as some called for.

But it is more complicated than that with an estimated 1,600 pupils being ferried to Sittingbourne schools every day and possibly spreading infection even though they have to wear masks on the buses.Many of the outbreaks came as soon as schools were fully reopened in September.

And when the government allowed holiday parks to reopen in July hordes of visitors, many from high infection areas of London, decamped to the Island. The Leas at Minster has remained busy and there was at least one 'rave' on the beach at Leysdown which needed police action after two stabbings.

Having three prisons on the Island doesn't help, either, with the movement of staff.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due to set out how the nation will emerge from the latest lockdown. Picture by Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due to set out how the nation will emerge from the latest lockdown. Picture by Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street

Both Sittingbourne and Sheppey Conservative MP Gordon Henderson and Swale council's Labour leader have followed the same official lines, claiming it is difficult to pin the blame on any one reason. Both suggested deprivation could be a cause.

There is a huge health inequality across Swale. In some parts of eastern Sheppey people's life expectancy is a full 10 years less than those living in Borden on the mainland. Poverty often means bad diets and higher obesity leading to poorer health such as diabetes which makes residents more likely to suffer the most from coronavirus.

Less skilled people are also more likely to be manual labourers and so less likely to have jobs they can do from home.

What is not in doubt, is that from having one of the lowest rates in England, Swale somehow became highest over a matter of days. Have we all just lost the will to wear face masks, make space and wash our hands? Or is there some other cause?

We asked these residents to share their thoughts.

Mike Rolfe, founder of the newly-formed Sheppey-based Criminal Justice Workers Union
Mike Rolfe, founder of the newly-formed Sheppey-based Criminal Justice Workers Union

Mike Rolfe

Prison officer and founder of the Sheppey-based Criminal Justice Workers Union.

The high local infection rate which has dominated the news headlines should be a red light stop and think moment for all residents.

Swale is a close-knit community with much of its population living, working and socialising in close proximity to each other.

The high rates of deprivation add to residents confining themselves to the region in comparison to other towns, cities and boroughs with better transport links. Many people feel left behind which severely impacts on self-worth and conformity when it comes to the pandemic restrictions.

Undoubtedly, the area with three large prisons, mass commuting of children to school via bus and a recent end to the holiday season, in which the area sees many people from all over the country visit, will have helped to spread the disease in Swale and skew figures negatively.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Suffolk has risen to 360. (43189785)
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Suffolk has risen to 360. (43189785)

The population, however, does appear to have desensitised itself to the threat Covid-19 presents to their health, family and others.

Some of this is due to the length of time this pandemic has dragged on for already. But conflicting guidance early on about the benefits of wearing face masks has added to despondency.

Most people I encounter now consider catching Covid as an inevitability rather than something to avoid. This is certainly true of the individuals I work with as we see more and more positive cases in the confines of the prison environment.

However, residents should heed the advice being given by local leaders, these people are monitoring the situation closely and are well informed about the stresses and impact this disease is having in the community and public services.

It may well be that for most of us catching Covid-19 is now an inevitability but we must do all we can to slow the spread giving healthcare professionals the chance to introduce effective vaccines and treatments to protect the vulnerable.

We do not want to be burying our children, siblings, parents or grandparents. I echo calls from politicians at all levels in calling on residents to do their part in following guidance to stop the spread of this deadly disease.

Tim Lambkin, managing director of Sheppey bus firm TravelMasters
Tim Lambkin, managing director of Sheppey bus firm TravelMasters

Tim Lambkin

TravelMasters coach company which carries up to 1,500 pupils a day

I don't think it is the school buses at fault. We have been insisting on children wearing masks on all our buses since September. We preferred a proactive approach rather than a reactive one. Even then, we had one parent threatening to take us to the European Court of Human Rights. It has been like pushing water up hill.

When a school notifies us that one of their pupils has tested positive we review all our CCTV footage to find out where they were sitting, whether they had a mask, if they got up and walked around and then notify pupils who were sitting near them.

People really need to take more responsibility. It only takes one in a group to not wear a mask to spread this disease. I see groups of youngsters apparently sent home from school still hanging around street corners when they should be at home isolating.

There are schools which don't have any pupils bussed in like Minster Primary and Thistle Hill which have still had to close. We have all seen people in shops not wearing masks.This won't go away until people start taking it more seriously. We always seem to be playing catch up and going round in circles. At first the government said we didn't need to wear any masks at all. Then it said we didn't need masks on school buses. Where was the sense in that?

Ray Seager, Minster-on-Sea Rotary Club president and manager of Minster Working Men's Club
Ray Seager, Minster-on-Sea Rotary Club president and manager of Minster Working Men's Club

Ray Seager

Minster-on-Sea Rotary Club president and manager of Minster Working Men's Club

"My wife Caroline and I run Minster WMC and have spent a lot of money making the whole club Covid-19 safe. We even provided a risk assessment and rules to enable us to run a darts tournament.

Where are these infections coming from?The spike seemed to come two or three weeks after the schools returned and, as far as I can see, they are nearly all closed again.

I know of five people with the infection and though no one can be sure where they contracted it, three of them work in a school.

As we got through the first lockdown there were very few reported cases. This has led to complacency. Twenty percent of those contacted by Track and Trace had been to a supermarket and many of those stores are now not policing social distancing or asking people to wear masks.

I am also aware of holiday parks taking bookings from holidaymakers from as far as Manchester between lockdowns but when the north of England was starting to see a dramatic rise.

As for the prisons, with the rate of infections being reported I’m dumbfounded how this could be allowed to happen. I have no understanding how those in charge allowed the infections to spread.

Sheppey singer Mick Kenten
Sheppey singer Mick Kenten

Mick Kenten

Sheppey singer and ex-Kenny guitarist

This has been a wake-up call for all of us on Sheppey and in Swale.I've heard a few people saying they don't need to do as they are told.

It has not been helped by holiday parks being open and schools reopening. I feel for prison officersand NHS staff on the front line.

We all need to to stop and make changes or this will be around for a long time.

Former Settlers' singer the Rev Cindy Kent
Former Settlers' singer the Rev Cindy Kent

Rev Cindy Kent

Retired priest and former 60s pop singer now living on Sheppey

Having recently travelled on the train between Sheppey and Sittingbourne and seen the lack of masks or face coverings I can’t say I’m all together surprised.

I have challenged people and asked - politely - why they feel they are exempt from the ruling and have either been greeted with a response of expletives (even when wearing my dog collar) or I’ve been told that they don’t think it will make any difference.

Comments range from “I don’t believe it’s that bad and it’s being exaggerated” to “Well, we’ve all gotten to die of something!” Whilst I agree with the latter statement, I don’t see any need to hasten that day.

There’s no visible guard on the train to monitor this and so it continues to be a problem.

Veteran Sheppey entertainer Ray Ballard
Veteran Sheppey entertainer Ray Ballard

Ray Ballard

Veteran Sheppey entertainer

"I said weeks ago about closing non-residential caravan parks and visitors to the Island but I was ignored by local councillors and Gordon Henderson who basically said I should contact Swale council.

But surely they are in a better position than me to suggest this?

I'm sorry but the health of the residents of the Island is more important than tourism."

Meryl Ledbrooke, author and composer
Meryl Ledbrooke, author and composer

Meryl Ledbrooke

Author and composer from Blue Town

It's a bit of a conundrum. Most folk appear to be wearing masks and social distancing pretty well in Sheerness.

Maybe it's the visitors coming to the Island for prison visits, to check on their caravans or even for a day trip.

One chemist told me people were coming here from Medway for a flu jab because they couldn't get them in their area.

But as Paul McCartney once sang: "We should all stand together."

Solicitor Richard Murr
Solicitor Richard Murr

Richard Murr

Solicitor who has moved to Queenborough from Faversham

I am reasonably sure that it is the schools being open. Someone in the government said, perhaps two weeks ago, that Covid-19 is a mild illness for children and that school-age children usually have fit young parents who will not be badly affected.

It is all very well allowing herd immunity to build for school-age children and their parents but what about those they come into contact with in the street, supermarkets and elsewhere?

I have a friend in her late-50s who is a school teacher. She hides very well an underlying health problem. She is almost convinced that if she catches the virus she will die. Certainly the precautions in place in the school would not protect her. She is not even supposed to wear a mask when teaching.

I went to Sheerness town centre to pick up a parcel and several times I dodged family groups with young children running around. I think children should wear masks when in shops and probably elsewhere too because they have no concept of social distancing.

Ray Featherstone who runs Sheerness County Youth Club and created Stone Film Productions (43224840)
Ray Featherstone who runs Sheerness County Youth Club and created Stone Film Productions (43224840)

Ray Featherstone

Sheerness County Youth Club

Clearly the number of infections in the prison will make Sheppey look like the worst in Swale.

I find the shops and supermarkets are keeping to the guidelines but people tend to be careless when meeting friends and family.

The government can only set out guidance and rules to reduce the spread. But it’s down to the individual to make it happen.

Tim Bell
Tim Bell

Tim Bell

Pensioner, 75,

It is not surprising that 90% of inmates on one block have contracted virus because of the close environment.

That must affect the overall statistics of the Island. I feel sorry for the prison staff.

There are quite a few deprived areas in Swale and also areas on Sheppey which have a high population of people aged over 60 who are more vulnerable.

It is difficult to understand the statistics and to work out the reasons why. It might help, though if everyone wears masks, especial in shops. It is quite noticeable it isn't being done.

My tip to boost one's own immune system to help stop the spread is is take supplements of vitamin D and zinc, especially as we now have less exposure to the sun.

Lana Box at the Beach Bar, formerly the Beach Hotel in Seaside Avenue, Minster
Lana Box at the Beach Bar, formerly the Beach Hotel in Seaside Avenue, Minster

Lana Box

Landlady, Beach Bar, Minster

We had to ban 90% of people in their 20s for the duration of pandemic as they did not care, didn't follow any rules and were rude.

The majority of our customers were very good and understand and were patient. It was only youngsters.

Pat Sandle of Warden parish council
Pat Sandle of Warden parish council

Pat Sandle

Chairman of Warden Parish council

It is a combination everything and a lot to do with the apathy of visitors but also all the new homes being built in such a concentration around Sittingbourne and on the Island without basic facilities being built first.

The patient to doctors ratio is double the national average yet plans are still agreed to increase the population even more.

Julie Nicholls and Mick Kenten of Sheppey FM
Julie Nicholls and Mick Kenten of Sheppey FM

Julie Nicholls

Programme manager at Sheppey FM

I don't like to kick the Island especially when people are already suffering badly.

But I do think the schools should have stayed closed and provided a better system to help parents home school. I have noticed holiday makers have been lax in their efforts.

Ray Allibone of Swampy Wildlife Rescue
Ray Allibone of Swampy Wildlife Rescue

Ray Allibone

Swampy Wildlife Rescue

I believe the same as a lot of people that Sheppey has just got too relaxed over the whole thing. Schools, I'm afraid, have always been a source of infection for most issues. And prisons are a constant contact problem anyway. Holiday parks are much the same as prisons. I see bunches of kids grouping together in places around the Island so obviously parents are not in control.

On the whole, the word ignorance springs to mind and a lack of caring.

Cllr Cameron Beart for Queenborough and Halfway. Picture: Swale council
Cllr Cameron Beart for Queenborough and Halfway. Picture: Swale council

Cllr Cameron Beart

Swale council, Queenborough and Halfway

The rise in Covid-19 cases in Swale and in particular on the Island is of deep concern and something we need to get on top of and bring back under control to ensure that when national restrictions are eased or lifted, we do not find ourselves under stricter measures.

I don't believe there is any single reason why cases are on the rise here but instead there are a number of contributing factors.

Our figures do appear to be skewed due to the number of rising cases in the Sheppey Prison Cluster, particular the high numbers we are seeing in Sheppey East. But they do not explain them away entirely.

We have a number of cases linked to schools, care homes and individual workplaces on the Island but also community transmissions which I hope we will see plateau and start to reduce over the next two weeks as the effects of thenational restrictions start to show.

Cllr Richard Palmer (Swale Independents Alliance) for Hartlip, Newington and Upchurch. Picture: Swale council
Cllr Richard Palmer (Swale Independents Alliance) for Hartlip, Newington and Upchurch. Picture: Swale council

Cllr Richard Palmer

Swale council for Hartlip, Newington and Upchurch and Cabinet Member for Communities

It would be so much easier for us all if we knew the answer to this question but nobody does. This awful virus is not going to disappear any time soon and seems to be mainly increasing on Sheppey and in Sittingbourne.

It would be unfair to blame one group or sector of the community. The prisons have been mentioned on several occasions by politicians and the media. It may well be the case that the virus is prevalent there but are prisoners going out in the community? Are the staff and visitors taking it into the prisons?

It’s a well known and documented fact that children and young adults are the largest group of the population which suffers the least with symptoms so are they going into school and unknowingly infecting their teachers who are then going home and infecting their loved ones, the delivery person or the staff in the supermarket?

I know of two incidents within a Sittingbourne school where twopupils from different families both took Covid tests and before knowing the results continued to go to school. Both children tested positive and were withdrawn from school once they had the results. Surely common sense dictates that you stay at home and follow the self-isolating rule for 14 days if you or someone in your household shows symptoms and needs a test?

Many of the outbreaks are among those who cannot work from home in distribution centres, prisons, care homes, building sites, delivery drivers and NHS workers. Many of these people may not have the luxury of furlough or been excluded from payments for being recently self-employed. No money coming in clouds people's judgment. Who are we to criticise such people who have slipped through the government's safety net?

I think the police have done their best to educate the public and manage rule-breakers without force or confrontation. It is not the responsibility of the staff in the shops to challenge customers who can become aggressive if challenged for not wearing a mask or following the guidelines. Enforcement is a police matter.

On the whole people within Swale have handled things well and have adhered to the rules and advice given by the government. But it only takes a handful of people who think they know better and flout the rules to spread the virus. And because it is such a virulent illness it will spread rapidly through the community. Many will not even know they are infectious if they don't have symptoms.

It is the responsibility of us all to do our bit. We must protect the most vulnerable and protect the NHS by following the government's rules and advice

Read more: All the latest news from Sheppey

Read more: All the latest news from Sittingbourne

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