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Anxiety in Barnsley as a virus hotspot get ready to open its doors

Robyn Vinter and Michael Savage
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

The shops reopen in Barnsley on Monday and Richard Walker is worried. A retired bricklayer with a history of heart attacks, Walker left his house on Saturday for the first time in three months for a bit of fresh air but didn’t like what he saw.

“People ignore the government suggestions, the supermarkets are absolutely packed. People are not wearing masks and not keeping their distance,” he said. In January, his sister-in-law Beverley Walker died of Covid at the age of 57. “It was a big shock, totally unexpected. We just got a phone call. We still don’t know how she got it. It hit the family really hard.”

Related: With one of the lowest Covid rates in Britain, Bath prepares to reopen

This experience is one of the reasons Walker is frustrated when people dodge the rules. “I get so angry with them,” he said. “But you can’t say anything because they’ll argue. They know they’re blatantly disregarding the rules.”

These people are a small minority though. Almost everyone out in the bitter cold in Barnsley town centre appeared to be wearing masks and adhering to social distancing rules.

Karen Grant standing in the pedestrianised shopping area with her hands in the pockets of her blue winter coat
Shopper Karen Grant: ‘We need more vaccination centres here.’ Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

Covid rates in Barnsley are the third-highest in the country, with a seven-day rolling average of 100.9 cases per 100,000 people. Yet Barnsley’s lockdown will be lifted on Monday, despite a rate more than three times higher than England’s national average.

Local politicians do not want their citizens to remain in lockdown any longer, but they worry about the consequences. Sir Steve Houghton, leader of Barnsley council, said there were already signs that Covid had become a “disease of the poor”.

“The reasons the rates are high in Barnsley are threefold,” he said. “We’ve got low levels of homeworking, so most people are going out to work and we’re seeing outbreaks in workplaces. Secondly, we’ve been doing lots of testing. The third issue is deprivation and family bubbles – families reliant on each other for childcare and other support.

Cases

“We would want to unlock, we don’t want to be left behind. But we’ve asked that once we’ve vaccinated the over-50s and the clinically vulnerable, we want to accelerate the vaccine rollout in places like Barnsley. Those factors … aren’t going to go away.”

Barnsley’s MP, Labour’s Dan Jarvis, said there still needed to be more financial help to ensure those who needed to could self-isolate. “As restrictions are lifted, the government should do the right thing and increase the support available for those who have to self-isolate,” he said. “No one should face the invidious choice between doing the right thing by their community and feeding their family.”

In Barnsley’s town centre, shop workers were preparing for the big day. “We’ve got a lot to do but it’s coming along all right,” said Carol Lucas-Armstong, manager of the local Clintons card shop. “We’re very excited, we miss the customers. We’re not worried, all the staff are really looking forward to it.”

Inside the market, Angus Mckinlay runs Joseph Cliff Fishmonger, which has been open throughout lockdown. He said people had been generally very careful. “There are no more idiots here than any other place,” he said.

“But there are loads of factories and people working in close contact with each other. There are thousands of people working in some of the warehouses. It’s bound to be higher here.”

Angus Mckinlay resting both hands on his fishmonger&#39;s counter in a blue striped apron, looking at the camera
Angus Mckinlay: ‘There are loads of factories and people working in close contact with each other.’ Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

The fashion giant Asos and Premier Foods, which makes the Mr Kipling brand, are two of the biggest employers in the town. “We’ve got so many people who can’t be furloughed,” said Christian Mason. “They’re still supplying people. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to keep going.”

Deprivation is also likely to be a factor in the stubborn Covid rate in Barnsley, which in 2019 ranked 22nd of 317 local authority areas in England for health deprivation.

Though Covid rates have fallen since the start of the year, deaths are still higher than in August, September and October last year, and rates among older people are among the highest in England.

Shopper Karen Grant thinks this is because most people have to travel outside Barnsley to get the vaccine. She received her first dose from the closest mass vaccination centre, nearly 15 miles north in Wakefield.

She said: “We need more vaccination centres here. There are lots of people at home with not enough money to travel, especially in the more deprived areas.”

She is also concerned about younger generations choosing not to be vaccinated, people like 20-year-old Emily Williams and her 18-year-old brother Todd Morrison who are both indifferent about getting the vaccine, describing themselves as “low risk”.

But Williams, who has spent the last year out of work, believes reopening shops will trigger a third wave in the town.

She said: “It’s going to get worse and this will keep dragging on. I can’t really speak about the government but I wish I was educated enough to speak about it because I’m really angry.”