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A review of the coronavirus pandemic in Suffolk and its many twists and turns





What a year - it's been like nothing else in history.

When the first two cases of coronavirus were confirmed here in the UK in late January, few could have imagined the devastation in human terms that the virus would wreak across the globe.

Move on to late March and the somewhat chilling announcements started coming from Boris Johnson and his team. First it was the closure of cafés, pubs and restaurants, and then came the warning about 'tougher measures' if people didn't start following new rules on something called social distancing.

Boris Johnson announced lockdown on March 23. Picture by Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street
Boris Johnson announced lockdown on March 23. Picture by Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street

March 23, 2020, is a date which will stick in our minds. It was the day Boris Johnson announced on television a UK-wide partial lockdown, to contain the spread of the virus.

We were instructed to stay at home, shop only for basic necessities, take one form of exercise a day and to travel to and from work when only 'absolutely necessary'.

Across Suffolk, life changed overnight. But through all the trauma, hardship, job losses and heartache, there have been those community angels and bright sparks who have made the whole episode slightly more bearable.

Since March, the heroes in the NHS have been the ones to bear the brunt of the pandemic. A simple thank you doesn't really do enough but the Clap for Carers initiative which kicked off in late March at least showed how much we cared in a small way. The rainbow pictures which shot up in the windows across Suffolk were another simple way in which we said thanks to those at the sharp end.

Slice of New York turn its business on its head and offer delivery and takeaway for customers. Picture: Mecha Morton
Slice of New York turn its business on its head and offer delivery and takeaway for customers. Picture: Mecha Morton

Some of the less obvious heroics have taken place in the corridors of power locally.

At one point, Suffolk had £21.5m to distribute to business to offer support - West Suffolk had £1.8m of this total and the hard work of our civil servants has often gone unnoticed but it's one element of the pandemic which will have made sure Suffolk comes out of the virus in a much better position.

Business has adapted remarkably to the virus and Suffolk can take its hat off to the entrepreneurs.

Early June saw Sudbury's Slice of New York turn its business on its head and offer delivery and takeaway for customers. The Brewshed, at Ingham, adapted, too, offering beer in takeaway form for eager drinkers. And this spirit of ingenuity was echoed across many businesses as they clung on to what business they could.

Health secretary and West Suffolk MP Matt Hancock told us in mid-March that we were 'at war with an invisible killer', just a day after the racing industry in his own constituency was dealt the news that races would have to take place between closed doors. He later fell victim to the virus himself.

David Marjoram started a beer takeaway service during the lockdown. Picture: Mecha Morton
David Marjoram started a beer takeaway service during the lockdown. Picture: Mecha Morton

The resilience of our towns and cities in coming to terms with the virus warrants special mention. Event after event fell victim to the virus like a house of cards - the Newmarket Nights gigs were cancelled, Suffolk Show for 2020 and 2021 was called off, the Thetford Forest gigs which would have brought Noel Gallagher, Will Young and Madness among others to the forest setting were all cancelled. Theatres, cinemas, arts centres all shut up shop.

Don't let's forget the impact on charity, either. One of the biggest fund-raisers in Bury St Edmunds - the Race for Life - was called off. Then came the Girls Night Out, a huge fundraiser for St Nicholas Hospice Care. The hospice has just announced eight redundancies after suffering a £1m loss in revenue thanks to the pandemic. The annual Abbey Gardens fireworks night - another big charity money-spinner - also fell by the wayside. July also saw the closure of Age UK Suffolk, which cited 'significant financial losses'.

The community support since March has been truly amazing. Initially, I remember Newmarket Town Council pledging £10k to support the volunteer effort.

Sam Reid on the rickshaw, helping deliver essentials to vulnerable people. Picture: Mecha Morton
Sam Reid on the rickshaw, helping deliver essentials to vulnerable people. Picture: Mecha Morton

But the tribute from Beth Taylor-Brennan in Thetford stuck in my mind - she gave her home a wonderful balloon makeover to pay tribute to the stars in the NHS. Add to this the work of the Bury St Edmunds Rickshaw volunteers who turned from carting people around to carting shopping to those in need - and in June, had racked up their 1,000th delivery.

The mental health fallout from the pandemic is yet to be fully assessed but students at Thurston Community College took part in a project to support them in this area in November. Teachers set up an art project to help the students to express their Covid-19 emotions - the 820 masks produced were placed on display.

Schools and colleges were at the forefront of the pandemic. While the government was keen to make sure children remained in school where possible, that brought its own challenges.

Ruth French from Stow Healthcare
Ruth French from Stow Healthcare

In early September, within days of reopening, headteacher of Samuel Ward Academy in Haverhill, Andy Hunter, announced the closure of the school after eight Learning Support Assistants tested positive for the virus and the academy was the first to have to close in the UK. Culford School, just outside Bury St Edmunds, also shut early for Christmas after four positive cases of Covid in its pupils.

But in all the doom and gloom of job losses - one report suggesting that a third of jobs in Suffolk were furloughed at one point - came the glimmers of hope.

We secured an exclusive interview with Matt Hancock in October at which the health secretary was bullish about a vaccine, saying 'this too will pass' and urging Suffolk to keep following the government advice.

Beth Taylor-Brennan created a rainbow balloon garland to stand at her front door.
Beth Taylor-Brennan created a rainbow balloon garland to stand at her front door.

November saw more hope of a semblance of Christmas on the horizon when details emerged that there was likely to be a slight relaxation of restrictions for the festive period to enable parts of families to celebrate Christmas together.

This came just before the first hint of a successful vaccine being approved and Matt Hancock being present when the first UK vaccination was administered earlier this month. We also learned that staff at Long Melford's Melford Court care home would be among the first in the world to get the Pfizer vaccine.

Quite a year indeed.

Read more: All the latest news from Suffolk