Nine groups that kept Canterbury going during Lockdown

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Making someone a cup of coffee or planting a sunflower seed may not seem like extraordinary moves but in our time of coronavirus such human gestures help us all along. Some of the people who did these things have now been recognised by SMACS, the city centre residents association*. And this article is a personal attempt to explain how such small acts made this “best of times” come out of this “worst of times”. I will tell it to you as I (the SMACS Treasurer) experienced it, and why we have given out nine ‘Good Coronavirus Awards’.

On Sunday, 22 March, the East Kent University NHS Hospital Foundation Trust had its first Covid death. On Monday, 23 March the UK entered Lockdown. That same day, the Canterbury Society issued the third of its special coronavirus editions of its newsletters. And Laurent Valentine opened up The Sandwich Bar (after its usual Sunday break), deciding to continue running his business on St Margaret’s St as long as he could.

Guillermo Diaz, proprietor of the Don Juan cafe in the Dane John Gardens, was not confident that he would be allowed to stay open but he decided to try. And on Saturday, 28 March, he made paella — one of the special dishes from his native Uruguay. (And three people died in the East Kent Covid wards in the Margate, Ashford and Canterbury hospitals that day.)

Worried that social distancing rules would not be obeyed, Diaz began putting up signs, painting half a small football pitch outside his cafe to mark out the 2 metre distancing for queueing. He soon had to put thick tape over the park seats by Don Juan to stop people sitting there. But he carried on making paella and barbecue and coffee and the rest of his menu.

In early April, composer and producer Richard Navarro decided to turn his plans for a concert in the Westgate Hall into a virtual concert with 30 other musicians. As the planning developed, the Covid crisis reached its fatal peak of nine deaths a day. There were five days in early-to-mid April when our hospitals hit that level on the Covid wards (April 6, 7, 8, 12 and 13). The concert was put on as a fundraiser for Hambrook Marshes, raising money for the Love Hambrook Marshes crowdfunding campaign to mount a cleanup following an arson attack on the boardwalk. The concert was supported by the Save Wincheap Water Meadows campaign, which has been protesting against Canterbury City Council plans to build a Park & Ride site there. The concert happened on Sunday, 26 April, and was a big success (raising £3,800). By the time it took place, though, 169 people had died on our local Covid wards as well as many others in care homes and in the community.

Throughout all this time, Boots had been open. Someone remarked to me about the tall, kind woman guiding people in through the doors. The prescription service was vital to the thousands of people receiving their medications through this small team. It did not falter for a day. And the tall lady, I found out later, was Rachel Phillips, the General Manager who had decided to take on that welcoming role herself, rather than leaving it to others to stand on the front line.

The Friends of Dane John had been quietly busy in April and May planting the new bed in the St Mary de Castro park. They appealed for seeds for another plot which had been reserved for a school’s project in Dane John and had them sewn in by May. In the hot weather at the end of May small teams of women would go to the well in Dane John in order to keep the little plants alive. They were out on Saturday, 30 May, for instance — and on that day there were three Covid deaths in the Trust’s hospitals. But the fatality rate was slowing down: with May showing 125 deaths (three-quarters of the April total).

Down the road the Thanington Neighbourhood Resource Centre was doing its best to keep serving its community. Dozens of food parcels were going out, and the young were still able to go for a chat with youth worker Lynsey Marshall in her back garden.

Challenges of a different kind were happening at the Castle Street Dental Practice. Manager Sam Snoad and her dentist husband Richard had begun delivering antibiotics to vulnerable customers but then formalised a system with Boots to handle these prescriptions. And the Snoads warned publicly — in the Canterbury Society’s 14th coronavirus newsletter, now beefed up and renamed the ‘Canterbury News’ — about the difficulties (and potential price increases) that would follow re-opening. Dentistry was neglected as a medical sector and, while German dentists could still treat emergencies, people in East Kent with tooth ache had a much patchier service.

On 15 June one person died in a Covid ward in our area, taking the hospital total here to 353. That was the day that Fenwick reopened — showing the elegance and care that we always associate with it. If Fenwick had not decided to keep faith with our city, we can only guess at how the prospects for shopping here overall would have been damaged. It is an anchor site, and therefore provides the footfall which makes life possible for smaller retailers and eateries.

Neither the Sandwich Bar nor the Don Juan had to shut down. In fact, they both forged happy relationships with the police and Council as well as their customers. And they adapted their businesses day-by-day to serve key workers and to meet the changing client demands of this strange time in our city’s hospitality market.

As I write, 429 people have died of Covid in the East Kent hospitals, and many others have succumbed in care homes in the area and in the community. And that total puts the East Kent Hospital Trust into 10th place out of the 220 trusts in England. We do not yet know if that number reflects the local population alone or whether patients were brought in from other regions.

The story is a deeply painful one. But it was made more bearable by these nine organisations:

  • Don Juan Cafe, Dane John (pictured, with Andrew Rootes of SMACS)
  • Boots
  • Yvonne Hill and Friends of Dane John
  • Save Wincheap Water Meadows
  • Castle Street Dental Practice
  • The Sandwich Bar
  • Thanington Neighbourhood Resource Centre
  • Fenwick
  • Canterbury News

* SMACS, the St Mildred’s Area Community Society

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