With its fruit orchards, Kent has long been proud to be the garden of England. But now there is anger that a few bad apples – the Boroughs of Swale and Thanet – plunged the entire county into Level 3 status when the lockdown ends Wednesday.
Last week, seven Tory MPs from across Kent wrote to Matt Hancock, the health secretary, in an attempt to break the tier system along districts or boroughs. Although Swale has the highest Covid infection rate in England at 530 per 100,000 population, Tunbridge Wells’ rate is less than a quarter of that and below the national average.
Hancock dismissed the appeal, but at Dover, which has less than half Swale’s rate, his decision was not well received. The bleachers shed tears.
“I cried when I heard the news,” said Sandra Malho, owner of La Salle Verte café on Cannon Street in the city center. Standing in front of her empty business, she worried about the effect this was going to have on the city in general and on its clientele in particular.
“Dover is depressed,” she said. “Mental health is declining. Most of my clients are old and lonely. We call it a community cafe, a place where people come to smile. “
Alan Valentine, a customer, said he had relied on coffee since his wife’s death. “It’s my social life,” he says.
Gillian Campbell, hairstylist, spray tan and nail technician, was also concerned about the effect on small businesses like hers. “This time of year I’m usually stuck as the holiday season approaches,” she says.
With its famous white cliffs and overlooked by a medieval castle, Dover would seem a beautiful city, if not prosperous. It is, after all, a major gateway to Europe, thanks to the ferries that dominate its giant port. But there are signs of economic hardship and a strong atmosphere of isolation, compounded by signs of social friction.
“Scumbags! Lyn Beckett barked on King Street, in response to the question of what explained the rapid rise in infection in Dover – it went from 42 to 267 cases per 100,000 in one month.
She was referring, she shamelessly explained, to East Europeans, whom she blamed for the spread. Dover has a relatively small migrant population, but several people have expressed doubts about foreigners following the rules, including Malho, who is from Portugal.
Other Doverians blamed school children outside of school, traders not enforcing masks and alcohol drinkers illicitly mixing. Kevin Harris gave me confidence. “Between you and me,” he said, “this was done deliberately by China”.
Having jokingly advised his wife to watch her tongue, Beckett’s husband Dennis was puzzled as to why Kent should be at level 3. Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire are the only other places in the south of the England to be placed at the highest level. “They started by shutting down Liverpool and these places,” he complained, “and now they’re shutting down Kent. We did nothing!
The potent mix of exceptionalism and self-pity, often at the root of xenophobia, was hard to ignore. Although, or perhaps because of the fact that it is the closest point to mainland Europe, Dover voted 62% in favor of the permission in the referendum. If you wanted to find a city that epitomizes the apocryphal newspaper title “Fog in the Channel, Cut Continent”, Dover wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
Although a no-deal Brexit would result in an estimated 2% cut in an already struggling economy, few have expressed reservations about the outcome.
But Dover can also feel isolated from the rest of the UK. It is not really a tourist destination, but a place that people pass through on their way to other places. It is an arrangement that seems to engender resentment and relief in equal measure.
Scientific evidence shows that areas neighboring those with a high Covid rate will see their own rates rise. But some still believe that Dover could have been protected and saved from the most severe restrictions.
“I think there was an opportunity to create a barrier between Thanet and Medway and then to leave southern and western Kent open,” said John Harrington, semi-retired business adviser. Harrington advises on “business survival,” and he was understandably concerned that Level 3 might do away with some of them. However, he did not see the looming threat of a no-deal Brexit as a matter of concern. Like other locals, he gave the impression that all of these macro issues were bypassing Dover, as if they were getting off the ferries and going straight to the M2 or M20.
Erika Voiss, a resident of around 25 from Germany, believed many of her fellow citizens feared the truck delays and traffic jams that Brexit was supposed to trigger. “But they don’t regret the decision,” she said, “because it was not a rational decision. It was moving.
The most obvious emotion in Dover was an anxious resignation, as if she was ready for a bleak winter. What was required, Harrington argued, was positive government public relations. He thinks there is too much talk about the Treasury deficit following the pandemic and not enough about the advantage of not paying money to Europe.
“I know the bus number was wrong, but it must be a number someone knows,” he said.
Maybe someone knows, although whatever the number is, it will not start to fill the vast hole in the government coffers. But then again… there might be blue pigs on the White Cliffs of Dover – tomorrow, wait and see.