The inhabitants of the United Kingdom have been very fortunate in not contracting to any large extent the potential deadly respiratory diseases of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-2003), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-2012) and bird flu (2013). It was only a matter of time, however, before a nasty respiratory virus would become a global pandemic, finding its way to UK shores with the potential of causing thousands of deaths.
It was in early December 2019 that people began to feel unwell in the Hubei Province of Wuhan, China. Many of those hospitalized had temperatures in excess of 102 degrees Fahrenheit accompanied by a dry cough and difficulty in breathing. On January 7 2020 Chinese researches had isolated the virus causing the disease and its RNA (Ribonucleic Acid) sequence was released shortly after. The virus was compared to other viruses known at the time and its genome was found to be a fraction over 79% similar to the coronavirus causing the SARS 2003 disease. Thus a new type of coronavirus was identified – SARS COV-2, more commonly referred to as Covid-19.
Within a few months the virus went global. Wickford and the rest of the UK went into its first lockdown. Shops were closed, except for those selling essential items. Travel was restricted and many workers, if able, were asked to work from home. It was however suggested people could leave their homes for around thirty minutes a day to facilitate exercise and to breathe in some fresh air which, incidentally, was better than normal due to the reduced pollution levels brought about by the shutdown. Wickford High Street and the Broadway became largely deserted, with the two public houses and restaurants closed, except for those supplying a take-a-way service. People visiting the town to buy their essentials were required to keep a distance of at least two metres from one another, and the wearing of face coverings was later required. Some of these were home-made, or they could be purchased from several places in the town. A small number of one-use face coverings – less so reusable face coverings – became a part of Wickford street litter, some accidently dropped, others perhaps not. Green ‘to go’ arrows were painted on High Street pavements directing pedestrian traffic in the opposite direction to the flow of motor traffic. That is to say on the west side of the High Street arrows pointed south towards Halls Corner; on the east side of the High Street arrows pointed north towards the railway bridge. The purpose of the exercise was to reduce face to face contact by passing individuals.
On Thursday evenings people could be seen outside their homes clapping in unison to show their support for staff employed by the National Health Service, and later for care-workers, too. As commendable as such national activities were this was possibly a distraction from the real need for both groups to have sufficient access to PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) so that they may safely carry out their jobs, a deficiency which was reported widely in the national press.
The pandemic, however, did not stop a changing Wickford landscape, although construction was halted for a time. For reasons other than the pandemic Wickford lost two of its banks. These were Santander in the High Street and in Market Road, Barclays. Also in Market Road during the first month of 2022 the old library and community centre were demolished. The site is being cleared for development as I write. The new Community Centre at the Nevendon Centre in Nevendon Road was unexpectedly called upon to administer the first, second and booster vaccine jabs. Thus a community centre lived up to its name by truly serving the whole community, for which the community must be truly grateful. Thanks must also be due to the doctors, nurses, administration staff, cleaners, and customer service personnel whether that be answering general questions or directing pedestrian and motor traffic at the centre during Wickford’s time of need.
At Station Approach the buildings at the north side of Wickford railway station were demolished and a temporary booking hall has been erected before a new purpose built booking hall is constructed. Towards the end of 2021 Wych Elm House, a new residential block, was completed at the south end of the High Street, opposite Halls Corner, although this is sometimes incorrectly advertised as being in Nevendon Road which does not actually begin until Wick Drive. The Works retailer, which has in excess of 500 stores, opened a shop in the High Street opposite Market Lane. Finally, at the Willows Centre the ‘Willows Centre’ sign was removed, as was the shelter canopy and support columns on the south side.
Fortunately, nearly two years on from the first lockdown Wickford life appears to be returning to some degree of normality. Wickford residents can be cautiously optimistic. However, national infection rate numbers are still high, mainly due to the omicron variant which appears to be more infectious than previous variants, but thankfully less deadly, no doubt at least partly due to the vaccines. Further mutations to the genome are likely, the outcome of which is unknown, but at least virologists, epidemiologists, doctors, nurses, care workers and the general population will be able to approach these challenges, should they occur, from a higher knowledge base.
Who would have thought, however, at the end of 2019 when Wickford residents were looking forward to Christmas cheer and New Year celebrations, that what may well have started out as a dry cough all those miles away in Wuhan, China, would cause such global havoc in 2020 and beyond, changing the lives of so many for so long, including the lives of Wickford inhabitants?