Fear and loathing in Dover, where Brexit and Covid meet

With its fruit-filled orchards, Kent has long prided itself on being the Garden of England. But now there is anger that a couple of rotten apples – the boroughs of Swale and Thanet – have plunged the whole county into tier 3 status when lockdown ends on Wednesday.

Last week, seven Conservative MPs from across Kent wrote to Matt Hancock, the health secretary, to attempt to break the tier system down along district or borough lines. Although Swale has England’s highest Covid infection rate at 530 per 100,000 people, the Tunbridge Wells rate is less than a quarter of that and is below the national average

Hancock rejected the appeal, but in Dover, which has less than half Swale’s rate, his decision was not welcomed. The tiers brought forth tears.

“I cried when I heard the news,” said Sandra Malho, the proprietor of La Salle Verte cafe on Cannon Street in the town centre. Standing outside her empty business, she was worried what effect it was going to have on the town in general and on her clientele in particular.

“Dover is depressed,” she said. “The mental health is going down. Most of my customers are old and lonely. We call it a community cafe, somewhere people come to have a smile.”

Alan Valentine, a customer, said he had relied on the cafe since his wife died. “It’s my social life,” he said.

Gillian Campbell, a hairdresser, spray tan and nail technician, was also worried about the effect on small businesses like her own. “This time of year, I’m usually chock-a-block coming up to the party season,” she said.

With its famed white cliffs and overlooked by a medieval castle, Dover would seem a handsome, even prosperous town. It is, after all, a major gateway to Europe, thanks to the ferries that dominate its giant harbour. But there are signs of economic hardship and a heavy atmosphere of isolation, compounded by signs of social friction.

Sandra Malho is worried about the customers who depend on her cafe for some human contact.

Sandra Malho is worried about the customers who depend on her cafe for some human contact. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

“Scumbags!’ barked Lyn Beckett on King Street, in answer to the question of what accounted for Dover’s rapid rise in infection – it has gone from 42 to 267 cases per 100,000 in a month.

She was referring, she explained unapologetically, to east Europeans, whom she blamed for the spread. Dover has a relatively small migrant population but several people expressed doubts about foreigners adhering to the rules, including Malho, who is originally from Portugal.

Other Doverians blamed schoolchildren outside school, shopkeepers not enforcing mask-wearing and alcohol drinkers mixing illicitly. Kevin Harris took me into his confidence. “Between you and me,” he said, “it has been done deliberately by China.”

Having jokingly advised his wife to watch her language, Beckett’s husband, Dennis, was mystified as to why Kent should be in tier 3. Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire are the only other places in southern England to be placed in the highest tier. “They started off closing down Liverpool and these places,” he complained, “and now they’re closing down Kent. We haven’t done anything!”

The potent mixture of exceptionalism and self-pity, often found at the root of xenophobia, was hard to ignore. Despite, or perhaps because of, being the closest point to continental Europe, Dover voted 62% in favour of leave in the referendum. If you wanted to find a town that embodied the apocryphal newspaper headline “Fog in Channel, continent cut off”, Dover wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

Dover is the closest point to continental Europe and a Brexit stronghold.

Dover is the closest point to continental Europe and a Brexit stronghold. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

Although a no-deal Brexit would lead to an estimated 2% shrinking in an already battered economy, few people expressed any reservations about that outcome.

But Dover can also feel itself to be apart from the rest of the UK. It’s not much of a tourist destination, but somewhere people pass through on their way to somewhere else. It’s an arrangement that appears to breed resentment and relief in equal measure.

Scientific evidence shows that areas next to those with a high Covid rate will see an increase in their own rates. But some still believe Dover could have been protected and saved from the harshest restrictions.

“I feel there was an opportunity to create a barrier between Thanet and Medway and then leave the south and west of Kent open,” said John Harrington, a semi-retired business adviser. Harrington advises on “business survival”, and he was understandably concerned that tier 3 might finish off some of them. However, he didn’t see the approaching threat of a no-deal Brexit as anything to worry about. Like other locals he conveyed the impression that all such macroeconomic issues bypassed Dover, as if they came off the ferries and went straight through to the M2 or M20.

Erika Voiss, an inhabitant of some 25 years and originally from Germany, thought many of her fellow townspeople were dreading the lorry tailbacks and gridlock that Brexit was expected to unleash. “But they don’t regret the decision,” she said, “because it wasn’t a rational decision. It was emotional.”

The most evident emotion in Dover was anxious resignation, as if readied for a bleak winter. What was called for, argued Harrington, was some positive government PR. He thought there was too much talk about the Treasury’s deficit as a result of the pandemic and not nearly enough about the benefit of not paying money to Europe.

“I know the number on the bus was wrong but it must be a number that somebody knows,” he said.

Perhaps someone does know, though whatever the number is, it won’t begin to fill the vast hole in the government’s coffers. But then again … there might be blue pigs over the white cliffs of Dover – tomorrow, just you wait and see.


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