Cornwall becomes Coronawall

Ten days after the G7, Cornwall has some of the highest coronavirus infection rates in the country. And the government is attempting to cover up one of the main reasons for this.

For the first 18 months of the pandemic. Cornwall felt like a relatively safe place to be. Covid case rates were substantially lower than the national average, rising only slightly even during the summer holiday season of 2020. The situation has changed dramatically in the past two weeks and is significantly worse now than the figures shown here.

Two areas of Cornwall – St Ives and Falmouth – now have some of the highest case rates in the country. As of yesterday the rate in St Ives, where most of the G7 leaders’ entourages were based during and ahead of the G7 weekend, along with large numbers of security personnel, was running at 920 per 100,000. This is higher than in Blackburn, previously the UK’s worst hot spot.

In Falmouth, where large numbers of the world’s media were gathered along with thousands of protesters from all over the UK, the rate now stands at 380 per 100,000. In some Falmouth council wards – including the one where I live –  infections have climbed to more than 500. Falmouth East has seen a 2,000 per cent rise to 600 per 100,000. This compares with an average of 85 for the UK as a whole.

Both the government and Cornwall Council have been reluctant to acknowledge any link to either the G7 or tourism, preferring to point to “young people”.

Reasons behind the surge

It’s true that the majority – though by no means all – cases are among unvaccinated 16-29 year-olds. But this does not explain why Cornwall has seen a far bigger surge in case numbers than comparable areas such as Devon, also a popular holiday destination with a university city. And nor is the fact that some of the cases are among university students necessarily unconnected with the G7. The campuses of Falmouth University and Exeter University in Cornwall hosted several events for visitors over the summit weekend, and many students have been working in pubs and restaurants packed partly with people in Cornwall for the summit.

Most local people are in no doubt about the causal connection between the summit and the massive spikes seen in parts of Cornwall. As St Ives café owner Kate Smith pointed out: “If you look at where the spikes have happened, it’s cases where everything was positioned ready for the G7. It’s not rocket science.”

Government refuses to publish its risk assessments

The government has refused to publish its own coronavirus risk assessments for the G7, supposedly on the grounds of “security”, though this looks much more like an attempt to hide the extent of the risk to which it knowingly exposed the people of Cornwall.

Andrew George, the former Lib Dem MP for St Ives and now a Cornwall councillor, said: “The correlation between G7 and the tsunami of Covid-19 caseload in St Ives/Carbis Bay and Falmouth is undeniable. It ought to drive public bodies to at the very least maintain an open mind about the connection between the two. Those who were responsible for that decision and for the post-G7 summit Covid-19 case management and assessment should be held to account for their decisions and actions.”

The risk was pointed out to the government months ahead of the summit by one of the UK’s most senior police officers. On 29 March, the chair of the Police Federation, John Apter, warned;

“I fear G7 could become a super-spreader event. Thousands of officers in this small place working closely together to help protect world leaders is creating the ideal conditions for Covid-19 to spread among them. It is for exactly this sort of reason why I have been calling for the Government to put officers on the priority list for vaccinations. We may regret not doing that.”

And indeed, there were outbreaks of Covid among the more than 6000 police brought into Cornwall for the G7, including on the cruise ship that housed some 1000 of these in Falmouth harbour.

Factors beyond G7

Of course, the G7 is not the only factor behind the dramatic spike in infections here. A big increase in tourism over the half-term weekend and mixing in schools have no doubt played a part. And, as Edinburgh University professor of epidemiology Rowland Kao has pointed out, the fact that Cornwall has seen low rates of infection in previous waves may well have made our population especially vulnerable.

But, as Professor Kao noted: “Any risks would have been exacerbated by the large numbers of people arriving in Cornwall both for the G7 summit and for recreational purposes, increasing both crowding and contact.”

Just as worrying as the surge in infection is that large numbers of visitors are continuing to pour into Cornwall, which looks set to see its busiest ever holiday season. On Radio Four’s Today programme this morning, Cornwall’s director of public health, Rachel Wigglesworth, called for people not to come without having pre-booked accommodation. The government, which last month advised people not to enter or leave Covid hot spots in the North West except for essential purposes, has issued no such advice for Cornwall.

Call for rapid action

Local councillors here are calling for rapid government action to address the situation, including surge testing and the opening of vaccination centres in town centres that are easier for young people without cars to access.

Their calls have been echoed by Dr Zubaida Haque, a member of the Independent SAGE group of medical experts: “The government needs to act fast, local public health officials need to act fast, we need surge testing, we perhaps need more vaccinations in those areas but they need to stop being in denial, start taking responsibility and start acting in the interests of Cornwall residents, businesses and schools.”

Johnson’s false claims

When Boris Johnson announced that he had chosen Carbis Bay as the venue for the G7, he gave a number of reasons for this. Some were obviously preposterous, such as his claim that this was partly out of “my own pride in being probably the first half-Cornish Prime Minister” (his father Stanley Johnson was born while his parents happened to be visiting Penzance; his father was of Turkish origin and his mother hailed from Bromley in Kent). 

Johnson also claimed that “our gathering will also help to spur Cornwall’s recovery from Covid by attracting more visitors”.

As the Delta variant that the government allowed to enter the UK continues to spread in Cornwall and more and more businesses here are forced to close, this claim – like so many of Johnson’s false promises – is now ringing very hollow indeed.