Clacton-on-Sea forms part of the area run by Tendring district council, which, if you go by “cause of death” on death certificates, has the highest rate of death from Covid-19 in England. If measured by the number of deaths within 28 days of a positive Covid test, Tendring comes a close second to nearby Castle Point in Essex.
Yet, by either reckoning, many in the town reject Dominic Cummings’s damning assessment last week of the government’s handling of the Covid crisis.
“Boris Johnson has done two things that no other prime minister has ever done,” says Ron Windsor, a DJ who has been unable to work since last March. “He’s done Brexit and a pandemic.”
What of Cummings’s allegation that Johnson ignored scientific advice? “It’s a bit rich coming from him,” says Windsor. “He’s just bitter because he got the sack.”
The town voted almost 70% in favour of Brexit, and Johnson appears to remain a popular figure, despite the effects of Covid.
Like many other seaside towns, Clacton has struggled to find a modern identity ever since tourism began to move abroad. One of its few growth industries is care homes.
Theresa Cooper and Hayley Dickins both worked together in one of the town’s many care facilities. They speak of the early days of the pandemic as a time of great uncertainty and confusion.
“We weren’t allowed to wear masks at the very beginnings,” says Dickins, who contracted the virus and became quite ill after an infected resident coughed in her face.
For the decision to move aged patients from hospitals to care homes without testing for Covid, Cummings blamed the health secretary, Matt Hancock, but he also made it clear that he didn’t believe that Johnson was up to the job of dealing with the pandemic.
“Yeah, but I like Boris,” says Cooper. “I think he handled it well.”
Clacton’s MP is Giles Watling, a former actor who once played the vicar in Carla Lane’s comedy Bread.
“Every death is a tragedy,” he says with priestly propriety of Tendring’s mortality rate. “But the fact is that we have one of the highest percentages of OAPs in the country, three times the national average.”
Over-65s make up around 29% of Clacton’s population, according to most accounts, which is just over one and half times the national proportion of 18%. The effect of the first wave of Covid on Tendring wasn’t exceptional. It was the outbreak of the Kent variant last autumn that really drove the death rate up.
Cummings told the Commons inquiry hearing that Johnson went against the advice of chief medical officer Chris Whitty in delaying the autumn lockdown, and then only implemented a tier system.
The prime minister’s former chief adviser is not alone in believing this decision led to many thousands of avoidable deaths.
Six of them, says Lorraine Daniels, were her relations. “The lockdown came well too late in the autumn,” she says.
Her friend Denise Cowell agrees. She lost her 68-year-old husband to Covid last winter. Still, neither had much sympathy for Cummings, owing to his infamous Barnard Castle excursion.
“He should have been fined ten grand,” says Daniels.
Watling says that it’s easy to be wise after the event, but he himself believed at the time that there was no need for a lockdown, so he doesn’t blame the prime minister. As for Hancock, he believes that “he’s been as good as anybody could”. Which may not strictly qualify as a ringing endorsement.
At the Kingsgate Care Home on Carnarvon Road, however, there is no doubt that the government got it wrong. “They failed care homes miserably,” says deputy manager Vicky Whale.
Unlike most other care homes in the town, Kingsgate managed to avoid any Covid deaths, by not waiting for the government direction. It instituted its own lockdown two weeks before the national one last March, and did the same in the autumn.
“I do believe that had we locked down and kept people where they were until a safety net became available, the country wouldn’t have lost half the people we have lost,” says Whale.
Her boss Estelle Mirza lost her husband, a much-loved local GP. She thinks he contracted Covid from visiting care homes. “He had never been sick in the whole of his working life,” she says.
It’s not hard to find stories like that in Clacton. As a warm sun shone on the empty beach, the town looked as if it was finally heading towards brighter days. But it will take more than a cloudless summer to escape Covid’s long and grief-ridden shadow of death.