Why hasn’t Hastings gone viral?

As of last Wednesday 13th May, according to Public Health England (PHE), 45 people resident in the borough of Hastings had tested positive for coronavirus since the beginning of March. That’s 48.5 per 100,000 population, the lowest infection rate out of all 152 local authority areas in England. 

Over the same period, 86 residents of Rother district, encompassing the hinterland of Bexhill, Battle and Rye, received a positive test, equating to 89.9 per 100,000 population – almost twice as high as Hastings but still the sixth lowest across the country. 

The Office for National Statistics has, at the time of writing, published a breakdown of fatality figures only up to 17th April. As at that date these clearly reflect, and seem to corroborate, the low rate of infections here. Hastings had recorded only six deaths where the death certificates cited the virus as the underlying cause or a contributory factor – that’s the second lowest rate (6.3 per 100,000 population) of 111 towns and cities across England and Wales; only Norwich was lower.

Neither PHE nor East Sussex Healthcare Trust has offered any explanation for why this part of East Sussex seems to have been spared the much larger proportions of both positive tests and deaths recorded elsewhere. Without reliable data that these and other national authorities either don’t have or won’t release, there can at this stage only be competing speculations. 

CONTRARY EXPLANATIONS

1 The low positive test number might be simply an index of low test numbers as a whole. People have generally only been getting tested, by a swab to the nose or throat, when they are hospitalised as patients with severe symptoms. PHE has organised some other test centres, and there is now a drive-through centre in Bexhill that ‘frontline key workers’ with some symptoms (a high temperature and/or a new continuous cough) may attend, but in March and for most of April the nearest was at Gatwick – an hour and a half’s drive from Hastings. Home testing kits were also made available towards the end of April to boost test numbers. But it has emerged that the swab test is only judged effective anyway in cases where there has been an onset of symptoms within the last five days.   

2  Very large numbers of people might have already had the virus in Hastings, and been asymptomatic or recovered without ever being tested. This is certainly a widely held view locally, with many accounts circulating of residents suffering unusual coughs and other ‘flu-like symptoms during the winter months before the coronavirus was recognised as an infection that had reached Britain. (And clearly it had arrived in East Sussex long before official identification: one confirmed case of a family in Maresfield who contracted the disease has been traced back to transmission from an Austrian skiing holiday in mid-January). 

This theory could be proved or disproved by administering a reliable antibody blood test to the population, or even to a relatively small random sample. But although PHE issued a statement last week indicating that they had approved a test of this sort which has been developed by the Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche, they do not seem in a great hurry to roll it out; and, when they do, it will understandably be applied first to frontline workers.

3 Very small numbers have been shown to have had the virus, therefore there may have been few to transmit it on during the lockdown. This contrary theory, coupled with mostly self-congratulatory pronouncements as to the local citizenry’s compliance with social distancing guidelines (‘Stay At Home; Protect The NHS… ’ etc), seems to be preferred by the majority and is, no doubt, the basis for public warnings issued to potential visitors by Hastings Borough Council to “keep away from the town”. There was presumably a fear that the partial relaxation of the lockdown from last Wednesday that allows unlimited liberty to drive and exercise outdoors subject to social distancing might have unleashed hordes of socially undistanced incomers from areas with higher infection rates. The revised slogan ‘Stay Alert’ has been treated as a direction to stay inhospitable.

“Hastings Will Remain Closed”

Council leader Kim Forward said: “We love welcoming visitors to Hastings, some of whom return every year to enjoy the fantastic attractions, restaurants and shops our town has to offer. But for now Hastings will remain closed to visitors until we feel it is safe for our town to welcome them again. Our toilets are closed across our town as well which is helping to prevent the spread of Covid-19. We are all working hard in Hastings to keep our residents safe and our infection rate is relatively low and we need it to be even lower.”

The problem with this viewpoint is the problem of the lockdown itself: how can it end? The more protected the population, the more vulnerable it would seem to any fresh incursion of the disease – the ‘second wave’ feared by some epidemiologists. Meanwhile, as featured elsewhere in this newspaper, the hospitality sector, the bedrock of the town’s economy, is in crisis; bail-outs from central government can only be extended for so long. The notion that visitors must be kept away, and that every bar, restaurant, theatre, art gallery, museum and other places of social gathering can be mothballed until a safe and effective vaccine is produced and distributed doesn’t seem remotely realistic, But, on this view, what else is there?


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