The coastal town of Margate in east Kent is the place where the fast-spreading variant of Covid-19 first mutated before it swept through the rest of Britain. Scientists identified Kent last month as the county where the mutant virus developed, but a source with knowledge of research into its origins tells me that the earliest case of a person being infected with it was in Margate on the Isle of Thanet.
The new virus mutated during the second wave of the epidemic with the first case becoming known in September, though the danger it posed only became clear in December. The renewed epidemic in late summer was centred on Thanet and Swale, both on the north Kent coast, and was particularly severe in their most deprived districts.
Government scientists expressed alarm at the steep and unexpected increase in coronavirus cases in Kent, despite the November lockdown. “This variant became of interest because there was an investigation of the increasing case numbers in Kent in early December, despite the national lockdown,” said Professor Peter Horby, the chairman of the government’s New and Emerging and Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG).
Horby recalled that when Public Health England investigated the reason for the upsurge in Kent, its medical experts discovered a cluster of cases with a variant of the virus that they had not seen before. The first case of the new more transmissible strain was first detected on 21 September, but its enhanced ability to infect people only became evident six weeks later.
Every virus mutates, but most mutations lead nowhere. Creating a more efficient virus through trial and error requires many people to be infected and plenty of potential hosts were available as the second wave of the epidemic gathered pace in north Kent late last summer. Scientists say that the mutation probably occurred in a single person with a weak immune system, giving the virus the opportunity to improve its mode of attack.
That this person should be living in Margate, a run-down town with a population of 61,000 in Thanet on the southeast tip of England, was not inevitable but it fitted in with the pattern seen in the rest of the country. High levels of poverty and of Covid-19 infection go hand-in-hand as health inequality mirrors social and economic divisions.
The depth of these might not be obvious to a casual visitor to Margate who has come to see the Turner Gallery, swim from the sandy beaches, or eat in a restaurant in the gentrified town centre. Yet within a few hundred yards of central Margate live some of the poorest people in England.
A short walk from the Turner Gallery is the heavily populated Cliftonville West district which is in the top one per cent of the most deprived areas in England, ranking fourth out of 32,278 areas in the government’s Index of Multiple Deprivation. From a distance this part of Margate does not look decayed, and there are centres of bohemian life, but the impressive-looking Victorian buildings are often subdivided into single overcrowded one-room flats.
It does not necessarily follow that the variant of the virus began its existence in Margate in a deprived area, but, as the second wave of the epidemic grew in size and speed last year, a map showing the surging infection exactly matched a map of the most deprived districts. It was also clear that this time around, unlike during the first wave, east Kent was in the front line of the epidemic. More specifically, it was Thanet and Swale, a district a little further west along the coast from Margate, and later Medway, which bore the brunt of the attack.
Swale includes the towns of Faversham and Sittingbourne and the Isle of Sheppey, separated from the mainland by a narrow stretch of water. As elsewhere in England, wealth and deprivation are closely juxtaposed, with the former often unaware of the latter. People living in beachfront houses that sell for a million pounds in Whitstable, a fashionable town in between Swale and Thanet, have a good view of the Isle of Sheppey, looking green and idyllic a few miles away across the water. But in reality, Sheppey is one of the poorest areas in Kent with life expectancy in places 10 years less than in towns nearby on the mainland. Similarly, out of view from Whitstable are three prisons in Sheppey, one of which suffered a coronavirus outbreak in which 90 inmates were infected.
I should confess a personal interest here since I live in Canterbury, which is 15 miles from Margate and 10 miles from Faversham. During the second lockdown last November and December, I noticed that infections did not seem to be falling in nearby Swale and Thanet as I had hoped. I was a bit disconcerted that the risk level was not declining as expected, though the idea that the second wave would provide the breeding ground for a deadlier strain of virus never occurred to me. But it should have occurred to the government, with immense scientific expertise at its fingertips, that the threat of a dangerous mutation would be enhanced by the premature and excessive relaxation of restrictions in July followed by the failure to reimpose them until November.
The second line of government defence is to blame the public and pretend that the problem is people fecklessly flouting lockdown restrictions, as claimed by the home secretary Priti Patel, who inevitably concludes that the way forward is tougher rules enforced by greater punishments.
Aside from Patel, many people abiding by the lockdown rules are outraged by the roar of traffic in their streets and the number of pedestrians on the pavement. I asked community workers and activists in different parts of Kent why so many people, particularly in deprived areas, appear to be living and working as normal. They all denied that it was “lockdown fatigue”, saying that people are actually more frightened now than during the first lockdown because, as one person in Swale put it to me, this time round everybody “knows somebody who has caught the virus or has died from it”.
People in deprived areas may want to stay at home but they have no choice but to go to work to earn a living and to keep their job. “Most women on the estate work in care homes, home care, as cleaners or in supermarkets,” says one local community leader. “I guess that makes them key workers, though they don’t get the applause.” Nor do they get compensation if they test positive and quarantine, putting in doubt what proportion of the working poor do get tested. During the pilot scheme run by the British army in Liverpool, a local doctor estimated that in areas of maximum deprivation, those coming forward to be tested numbered just four per cent.
The variant of the virus has become an alibi to explain away the government’s mistakes, but it was these same failings to better suppress the virus that helped produce the mutant in Margate in the first place.