At first glance it looked like a pretty perfect day in the self-styled surfing capital of the UK. The sandy beaches were packed, the pubs, cafes and shops humming.
Look at little closer, though, and it became clear all was not quite right. A tapas bar was closed because a team member had tested positive; a surf shop shut its doors at lunchtime because of staff shortages; a scribbled note stuck on the window of a fudge shop summed up the problem – “Covid in Newquay is on the increase” – and urged customers to wear a mask and socially distance.
As well as claiming the title of the country’s surf capital, this party town in north Cornwall is also, for the moment, England’s Covid capital.
The place is reeling after health officials said almost 5,000 cases had been linked to the Boardmasters music and surfing festival, which took place in Newquay earlier this month. About three-quarters of them were aged 16 to 21 and about 800 live in Cornwall. Many of those who attended believe the number of infections is probably much higher.
It prompted tourism bosses to urge people not to visit the region unless they had pre-booked and to test themselves for Covid-19 before, during and after their stay.
The Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly health and care partnership said health professionals were having to cope with an “extreme surge” in demand, with hospitals, GPs’ surgeries and care homes struggling to cope.
“I’m really, really worried,” said Pat Smith, an elderly resident who had ventured to the post office on the edge of town but was going no further. “We’ve been lucky so far in Cornwall with Covid but it’s really hit us now. I was going to take a walk down the beach but I don’t think I’ll bother. It’s mad busy. I’ve had my jabs but I’m taking no chances.”
The Covid figures for Newquay are stark. Three areas in and around the town have the highest case rates in England – Newquay East, Newquay West and St Columb Minor.
There are about 30 Covid patients in hospital in Cornwall, up from 27 a week ago, and nine in Plymouth, Devon. The bank holiday weekend – which features a Pride event in Newquay – is expected to make things even worse.
Political opponents of Cornwall’s Conservative leadership are aghast. Andrew George, a councillor who speaks for the Lib Dems on health, said the NHS in Cornwall was in “meltdown”.
He said: “A major contribution is the prevalence of the Conservatives promoting the ‘it’s my right’ libertarian agenda above the wider community interest. It’s time for a new campaign. A ‘let’s look out for each other’ message. Encourage people to respect and support each other, not just to assert their rights to do as they please.”
Rachel Wigglesworth, the director of public health for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, said she believed the number of cases in Newquay would start to fall. “How far down they come is another matter. It’s a really popular tourist area; it continues to be an attractive place for people to spend time. We want that to continue but doing that a bit more responsibly is welcomed.”
There was little sign of people covering up or giving each other space in Newquay on Thursday.
Lynne Shelton, an NHS worker, and her husband, Andrew, who were visiting from Derbyshire, were among the few wearing masks. “It’s so busy and nobody is covering up. It’s worrying,” said Lynne.
The owner of one bar forced to shut said a dozen of his friends had got Covid. “What can we do, though?” said the owner, who asked not to be named. “Should we have a two-week lockdown here? Would that help? But everyone has been so badly hit, we need to stay open.”
Many business owners were clearly enjoying the crowds. Paul Wills, a fish and chip shop owner, said Newquay was the busiest he had known it during the 11 years he had operated in the town. He was not wearing a mask and said he was not worried about catching Covid. “I have more important things to worry about, such as making a living.”