The Covid crisis in Milton Keynes - one year on
It's exactly a year since Covid reared its ugly head in MK. Here's a month by month look at the strangest 12 months of our lives.
On March 8 2020 rumours started circulating that somebody had died of 'the new coronavirus bug' at Milton Keynes hospital.
The death of the unnamed man, an 83-year-old great grandfather who had just returned from a Caribbean cruise, went on to make local and national headlines.
He was the first person in MK to die of the virus after a confirmed test and only the second in the entire country of to die of the disease that many cynics were still insisting was "no worse than a dose of the flu".
The gentleman, described by his family as "a truly loving and wonderful person", had been admitted to hospital with an initial diagnosis of pneumonia and made comfortable in a bed on a ward.
After observations, doctors decided to remove him from the ward as a precaution to carry out more intensive tests.
Three days after he was admitted, on the evening of Thursday March 7 2020, staff had the test result they would swiftly come to dread - he was positive for coronavirus. He died hours later with his family at his bedside.
A week later there was more bad news. A 92-year-old woman died at the hospital of the virus, followed the next day by a man, also in his nineties.
Sadly, by the end of the month, the deaths of Covid victims stopped being reported individually. They became a number at the end of each day - a number that swiftly rose to treble figures over the weeks to come as the virus ripped its way through communities, care homes and families.
Meanwhile, fearing disaster, hordes of shoppers in MK in elsewhere were buying up toilet rolls, soaps and hand sanitisers like their lives depended upon it. Supermarket shelves were stripped of pasta, rice and tinned goods, and even flour became an impossible luxury to find.
The more unscrupulous shoppers were selling toilet rolls for huge profits on eBay, and the Citizen reported on one shameless seller from Milton Keynes touting six different multi packs of toilet rolls, including Tesco and Co-op own brand, clearly bought from six different stores.
The price on average was a whopping £30 for a nine roll pack - plus £3.99 'economy' postage. Incredibly, people bought them.
On March 23, the country plunged into full lockdown. Loo rolls, sanitisers and food staples were now rationed in supermarkets and demand for delivery services reached an all time high.
The dreaded daily death toll and case count became even worse this month, but, with Covid tests still not available to the wider public, it was not accurate depiction of how deep the problem was.
For every one person that tested positive in MK, dozens more suffered symptoms. But they had no way of knowing if they had the virus or if it was indeed a horrible bout of the flu. Our new regional 'lighthouse lab' testing centre opened on an industrial estate at Tilbrook in mid April but still tests were not readily available to Joe Public at home.
Estates and towns all over MK busied themselves forming support groups to ensure nobody shielding or self-isolating went without vital supplies, while the essence of this community spirit came to a noisy head on Thursday evenings, when people took to their doorsteps to clap, cheer and clatter saucepans for our NHS heroes.
Meanwhile, home schooling became the norm and words and phrases such as 'furlough', 'social distancing' 'PPE' and 'non essential shops' became part of the common vocabulary for the first time.
On April 16, former Eastenders actor Ross Kemp made a special visit to MK hospital to film an ITV documentary. His visit prompted concerns from some members of the public who questioned why media were granted access at a time when relatives were forbidden to visit their loved ones who were dying.
More than 2000 protesters signed a petition to get the documentary axed, and the hospital trust’s chief executive Joe Harrison even received a death threat.
The show was screened regardless on April 30 - and it got rave reviews after an emotional Ross Kemp told viewers: "All I can say is the care that patients are receiving here is second to none. It's the professionalism that's being displayed, the organisation... But most importantly it's the love. People are being treated with so much love...They really care about the people they are looking after here. And this is the most overwhelming thing."
'Ross Kemp: On the NHS Frontline' can still can be watched on catch up on ITV Hub.
By the end of April, a mass Covid testing centre had opened in a car park at Central Milton Keynes. This was followed by smaller testing facilities throughout MK.
May began with the first tentative easing of lockdown: people were allowed to sunbathe in MK's parks and public spaces and also leave the house to exercise more than once a day.
'Today is the sixth day without a Covid-19 death at Milton Keynes hospital', was the Citizen's truimphant headline on Sunday May 10.
MK Council chiefs announced they would shortly be launching a trial of e-scooters. The machines would be the perfect Covid-safe way to getting around the city during the pandemic, they said.
On May 28, the NHS Test and Trace system was officially launched across England with the help of 25,000 contact tracers. But the accompanying app was still to be still delayed by several weeks.
By June 1, children began trickling back to school, year group by year group, and a couple of weeks later shops and places of worship re-opened. The following month pubs were allowed to open their doors again. But customers wondered how they'd get to enjoy their drink and a chat while wearing a facemask following the new mandatory ruling they should be worn in public spaces.
'No new coronavirus deaths in Milton Keynes for NINTH day in a row and no new cases for a week', shouted the Citizen's headline on June 5.
By the last week in June, the Prime Minister was timetabling out the further easing of restrictions, giving hope that life would return to a 'new normal'.
Milton Keynes had a good summer, with new cases down to just a trickle and Covid deaths, at last, becoming few and far between.
On Saturday July 4, the Prime Minister announced that pubs, restaurants and hairdressers could re-open, providing they stick to Covid-safe guidelines.
Two households could meet up in any setting with social distancing measures in place, and people could now enjoy 'staycations' in England with the reopening of accommodation sites.
Some leisure facilities and tourist attractions could also re-open. These included outdoor gyms and playgrounds, cinemas, museums, galleries, theme parks and arcades, as well as libraries, social clubs, places of worship and community centres.
The fun, albeit limited, continued as people enjoyed their comparative freedom. But towards the end of the month, the number of new Covid cases began to creep up nationally.
On August 21 there were 1,033 positive tests throughout the UK and two Covid-linked deaths, bringing the total toll to 41,405.
Milton Keynes was also showing a slight increase in cases and our council leader Pete Marland warned it was 'highly likely' fresh lockdown restrictions would be imposed in the city if numbers continued to rise.
Neighbouring Northampton was placed onto 'area of intervention' list over its soaring infection rate. Compared to them, MK was fine - or so we thought.
Meanwhile business was booming at last for local restaurants and pubs as people took advantage of the Government's Eat Out To Help Out scheme,which gave diners up to 50 per cent off their bill.
The Citizen's headlines announced 'three more cases' 'four more cases' 'five more cases.... The rise was slow, but it was definite.
On September 8 Mr Hancock warned of a possible second peak following a “concerning” rise in the number of cases. Three days later the R value of coronavirus transmission rose above 1 in the UK for the first time for since the beginning of March.
It had been six month since the first lockdown was launched. People started to dread another one might have to follow.
From September 24 pubs, bars and restaurants all over MK and elsewhere had to stick to a 10pm curfew.
For many in MK, the mood was complacent when the new tier restrictions launched on October 12 and placed MK firmly in the lowest band - medium risk.
The city could scarcely believe its luck at having seemingly escaped the worse of the second wave, and we wondered whether the lack of overcrowding and plethora of green open spaces had possibly saved us. Certainly neighbouring towns were nowhere near as fortunate.
'One neighbouring town to Milton Keynes goes into Tier Two lockdown as another teeters on the brink, ' read the Citizen's headline on Thursday October 29. We went on to describe how Luton was heading for full Tier Two 'high risk' alert, while Northampton was under government scrutiny due to a surge in cases. Bedford too was not faring well.
We spoke too soon. By the end of the month, the number of new Covid cases in MK was rising daily.
"Over the last week there has been a noticeable rise in cases in Milton Keynes, especially those over the age of 60," said MK Council leader Pete Marland on Friday October 30.
"The growth in positive cases over the past few weeks is a cause for great concern. If this continues, then further restrictions in a higher alert level will be required," he added.
He was right. Another national lockdown was launched the very next day.
Lockdown 2. As a city we were resigned, and hoped a short, sharp clampdown now would mean we'd all be able to enjoy a Christmas with our families.
The only difference between this lockdown and the March lockdown was that children were allowed to go to school. But by now the Citizen was reporting daily on how many outbreaks of new cases they'd been at local schools and how many schools had closed entire year groups due to infections.
All the talk was of a new, faster-spreading variant that scientists had found to be responsible for the surge of cases in MK and certain other parts of the country.
As soon as lockdown 2 was over, MK was slapped in Tier 2 - high risk - restrictions. This didn't affect many Christmas shoppers, who still flocked to intu and the centre:mk to spend, spend, spend.
On December 8 Milton Keynes hospital hit the headlines when it became one of the first places in the country to give Covid vaccines. First to receive the jabs were a local couple in their eighties, Barbara and Arthur Simper. Health officials began preparing a massive programme of vaccinations for the entire city.
But, despite the ray of vaccine hope, local case numbers continued to rise.
The government announced on December 17 that Milton Keynes would be moved up into Tier 3 restrictions - the government's harshest 'very high risk' category - from Saturday December 19. But still the shops did not close and still people rushed to finish their Christmas shopping.
We'd been in Tier 3 for a matter of hours when it was suddenly announced that we would move up to Tier 4 the very next day. The new rules also meant all non-essential retail in Milton Keynes must close, as well as gyms and hairdressers
They also meant that for MK, along with a list of other areas in the country, the Christmas with our families we had been promised was cancelled. For many, it was a bitter blow.
Two days before Christmas, a tiny baby girl was delivered prematurely by doctors at MK hospital. Her mum, seriously ill with Covid, was unconscious and about to be put on a ventilator. Nobody knew if she would make it to ever meet her new baby. See Citizen story here.
The Covid infection rate in Milton Keynes went from bad to worse. By the time the New Year dawned, MK had shot from having one of the lowest rates in England to being among the worst 10 per cent of the country's 315 local authorities.
Over the six days between December 23 and December 28 there were 1,570 new Covid cases,bringing the infection rate up to more than 866 cases per 100,000 of the population.
The hospital started to fill alarmingly, with 200 Covid patients at its peak. Tragically, the death toll rose further, with several patients a day losing their battle.
On January 4 - the day MK pupils were told they would be be returning to school, the city's total number of confirmed cases stood at 11,203 since the start of the pandemic and our death toll is 256.
The following day we went into the third national lockdown, but it took a while for this to have an effect on case numbers. Milton Keynes' case rate continued to soar, reaching 1,000 per 100,000 people one fateful weekend, while deaths continued at a rate of up to 50 a week - an average of seven people a day.
MK Council launched a rapid testing facility at the Central Milton Keynes Library, aimed specifically at asymptomatic keyworkers at first.
An engaged couple their 30s both contracted Covid and shared the same ambulance to MK hospital. The groom-to-be was so critically ill that nurses arranged for them to be married on the ward before he was put on a ventilator to fight for his life. See Citizen story here .
Meanwhile the city's vaccination programme was gaining speed, with GP surgeries joining forces to form seven special vaccination hubs throughout the borough.
'Between 2,000 and 3,000 people a day are now receiving Covid jabs in Milton Keynes' was the Citizen headline on January 10.
Doctors confidently predicted that every resident and staff member in every care home in Milton Keynes, along with 75 per cent of MK's population of over 80s will have received their jabs by the end of January.
At last the spread of the virus seemed to be slowing. During February the number of new cases started to stabilise, then slowly reduced.
On February 8, the mass vaccination centre opened at the city's centre's Saxon Court. Its single aim is getting as many people as possible vaccinated as quickly as possible.
Milton Keynes residents aged 70 and over were among the first to be invited to book a jab at the new centre, which can carry out between 2,000 and 3,000 jabs a day.
Today our case rate is down to 82.4 per 100,000 people - but this is still higher than the national average of 69.
Sadly deaths continue, but they are slowly reducing too. In the past seven days, 18 Milton Keynes people have died after testing positive.
During the two months since lockdown number 3 began, MK's death rate has almost doubled. Today it stands at 457 since the start of the pandemic. The total number of confirmed cases here over the past year is 19,299, but many more suspected cases were unconfirmed in the early days before testing was available.
Nationally there have been more than 4.2 million confirmed cases since March 2020.
But, also nationally, more than 22.2 million people - one third of the UK population - have received the first dose of Covid-19 vaccine. More than 1.1 million of these have received their second dose.
Locally, MK is whizzing through its Covid vaccination lists. The over 60s in MK were invited to have their jabs last week and this week all people aged 56 and over have been invited to book their slot online. MK hospital has now progressed to giving the second doses of vaccines.
Today (Monday) pupils all across MK are returning to school once again. They will take two quick-result Covid tests each week to identify asymptomatic carriers.
MK hospital currently has 80 Covid patients, and one of them is on a ventilator. The staff are still very busy, but they finally have a little more time to breathe.
This time last year there had been two deaths from Covid-19 throughout the UK, and one of them took place in Milton Keynes.
Today the nation's death toll stands at 124,501.