“What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young.”
Rudyard Kipling: “A Dead Statesman” 1919
For the next twelve months controlling the spread of COVID-19 will depend on sustaining major changes in people’s behaviour. The level of necessary compliance can only come from widespread trust and respect for the judgement and integrity of government ministers.
In my part of coastal Suffolk COVID-19 etiquette is impeccable. Everyone is well-behaved. This is not just because the population is retired and elderly with good reason to keep to the two - metres rule. Younger holidaymakers, laden with wind-breaks, picnics, mini-surf boards, buckets and spades, step into the road or the fields, to keep their distance. A polite ‘thank-you’ is the norm for the first to take avoiding action.
All accommodation close to the coast has been booked here. Camp-sites filled. Camper- vans spilling overnight into car parks. I estimate that there are three times more people enjoying Suffolk North Sea beaches than in former years. The demography is interesting. Couples with two children, one dog are the most common. The vast majority of visitors are in family groups, some bubbled or extended, like the large Muslim group from Walthamstow I met three weeks ago, first time out of London for five months, and a breakfasting group from West Sussex who had arrived at 5am to watch the sunrise.
The Suffolk coast is a different world from the South Coast with its Costa Brava-style occupancy, packed burnt-nose to nose, a few under sun-shades. If TV news shots illustrating how no-one is paying attention to government Covid advice tell the full story, the crowds on beaches like Bournemouth, Poole and westward consist mostly of 18-25 year olds with fewer vulnerable elderly. Mind you, Frith’s painting Life at the Seaside shows Ramsgate sands in the nineteenth century only a little less congested and with mixed ages, though considerably more clothed.
Dunwich, the mediaeval town ‘hidden beneath the sea’, inundated as currents and river changed course, has a special charm; its beach at 10 am on a sunny Summer’s day has, surprisingly, a touch of Seurat’s La Grande Jatte about it. The picture couldn’t be more different, the Seine not the sea, trees not pebbles, with a few huts for winding-gear, no-one elegantly dressed, but there is something similar about the light, the spaced placing of groups of people, the sense of leisure and time slowed, away from the urban bustle. Dunwich beach also has its fishermen, spaced according to fishing etiquette, further than COVID-distances, sitting meditatively in small encampments, rods pointing skywards, line just visible above your head. And plenty of toddlers captivated by hard-wired beach rituals: run down to the water’s edge, waves crash, spray, screams compulsory, scuttle back up the beach, repeat with bucket, collect water, pour into hole, repeat. Did Neanderthals do the same? Probably.
North of Southwold, this region’s best known beach, is Covehithe within weekend range of journalists from north London who, some time ago, began writing articles calling Covehithe something like “Suffolk’s Best Kept Secret” - which means it no longer is. The once quiet, little-known and secluded shore, reached by a path through high bracken and fields, then along crumbling cliffs, now is busy. All along the narrow path passing recesses have been cut into the surrounding vegetation for those who are ‘shielding’ and for well-behaved visitors. In the past, you could imagine the beach as the location for the final scene in Planet of the Apes when Charlton Heston spots the charred head and torch of the Statue of Liberty emerging from the sand. Now it’s dotted with picnickers, sunbathers and swimmers.
At Covehithe you can still see marsh harriers cruising ready to grab baby sand martins sticking their heads out of their cliff holes, watching for their parents coming back with food. Or over the sea but close to the shore on quiet stretches, hovering terns hunting, dropping like stones, beaks first, to snatch out fish. A lone, anti-social, seal patrols this beach, black doggy head appearing as it surfaces to take a look at Homo Sapiens. In the early Autumn, long skeins of Canada geese practise slipstreaming low above the waves. Covehithe blissfully banishes Covid from the mind. Welcome back to the comforting old normal.
I am not working for Suffolk Coastal Tourist Information, or auditioning for a Nature Notes column, nor is my purpose to attract visitors, but simply to emphasise that advice on preventing the spread of COVID must take age and location into account. The contrast between the behaviour of visitors to this stretch of the Suffolk coast and behaviour in London, Birmingham and on the South Coast is striking. A short while ago, over one weekend, West Midland police had to shut down over eighty illegal gatherings (many of them ‘raves’) and I’m told by Londoners holidaying in Scotland that they were struck by how many people wore face-masks. Why these differences?
On the face of it, the main rule-breakers are young adults who are now recognised as major carriers of infection. They voted overwhelmingly against BREXIT, only to be ignored, were more activist about climate change, only to be patronised, and, in big cities and towns, see no chance of ever moving in to their own homes. COVID has brutally disrupted their lives and, along with BREXIT, will curtail their job opportunities. On the whole in the early weeks of lockdown they complied. The turning point came when Boris Johnson failed to sack Dominic Cummings for breaching government guidelines. Many young people decided ‘to hell with it’. If they are to be persuaded to keep the rules once more, they will need to trust government. In Scotland Nicola Sturgeon has retained that vital trust; infection rates, similar to Northern Ireland’s, are 377 per 100,000 against England’s 518.
The generation gap, reflected in national voting behaviour, is becoming a serious issue. At the last election fewer than 25% of 18-25 year olds voted Conservative against 56% of the over 55s. Voluntary compliance with COVID prevention from the young remains critical. If the Johnson government fails to retrieve respect and public trust it will cost more lives. There are no signs Johnson and Cummings understand this.
See TheArticle 27/08/2020