A year like no other when the streets and shops of Aylesbury fell silent as lockdown first began

Today (March 23) marks the anniversary of one of the strangest years of our lives.

Tuesday, 23rd March 2021, 11:48 am
Updated Tuesday, 23rd March 2021, 11:56 am
Kelvin Wong, landlord of the Watermead Inn

On the 23rd of March 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson advised us to 'stay home, to save lives'.

And what followed in Aylesbury was carnage in our shops.

The first sign of trouble in Aylesbury Vale was seeing hordes of shoppers strip bare essentials like toilet rolls, dried pasta and canned food from our supermarkets.

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Aylesbury Vale heroes, Connect 2U

Even bare essentials like flour and paracetamol proved impossible to find.

We saw shoppers queuing up outside Tescos at SIX in the morning in order to stockpile goods that really, on reflection, they simply did not need to do.

Within days, loo rolls, sanitisers and food staples were rationed in supermarkets, while a demand for delivery services reached an all time high.

By April the daily death toll and Covid case counts were rising, but, with Covid tests still not available to the wider public, these were not an accurate depiction of how widespread the problem was.

Aylesbury Vale Heroes, Jade Rose Pinnock

Cases continued to rise in Aylesbury Vale, with many people unknowingly suffering symptoms or spreading the virus as they were 'asymptomatic'.

It was difficult to ascertain the full extent of the first wave around Aylesbury.

While uncertainty and fear spread throughout Aylesbury, we also saw the best of people come to the fore to help the vulnerable in the Vale.

Estates and towns all over Aylesbury Vale 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.

Aylesbury Vale Heroes, the Aylesbury Muslim Community

For all the unscrupulous individuals and stores looking to make a fast buck on hand sanitiser and the like, the kindness and community spirit in Aylesbury shone through.

Emily Jayne from Aylesbury set up her own food and support packages, which were then distributed to the most vulnerable across town.

She said 'the world's gone mad', but the group is a calm place for people to share information and put misinformation to bed.

The group was also a chance to share anxiety coping mechanisms, and a way for people to feel supported by their community.

A great example of communities pulling together during this difficult year is The Risborough Basket which opened on 30 March. It is a joint effort between Princes Risborough Town Council, the Active Community Bus and local volunteers and offers free delivery of groceries from the town’s shops to all residents in Princes Risborough. With more than 500 deliveries to date, they really are working hard to provide a vital service while encourage people to stay at home.

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 in Aylesbury for the first time.

There has been heartbreak for many.

He was left devastated when he was unable to comfort his wife as she died from Coronavirus complications because of lockdown guidance, while at the same time Boris Johnson's aid Dominic Cummings was found to be breaking the rules.

Other residents became heroes, such as Kelvin Wong, landlord at popular Aylesbury pub The Watermead Inn.

He delivered free pints to the doorsteps of local residents as a reward for them staying at home during the first lockdown.

The kindhearted landlord said: "Normally most people would have been in the pub on Sunday with the first warm weekend of the year.

"And usually, that means I would be rubbing my hands! But unfortunately not this year.

"However, as a show of appreciation for everyone all staying home to help save lives and protect our frontline staff - I wanted to bring the pub to them! "

Kevin proceeded to deliver pints from his trailer on Sunday afternoon, not once but twice.

Residents were invited to leave a pint glass outside their homes which Kevin would then top up with a cold beer. Kelvin delivered over 600 pints to thirsty local residents, who were hugely appreciative.

Resident columnist and panto star Andy Collins bought together the community to help the arts and also, care homes.

At Stoke Mandeville Hospital in the summer Andy, hosted Connect2You, a campaign born out of the pandemic which aimed to bring together two of the sectors amongst the hardest hit by COVID.

The event, which also featured an appearance from X-Factor star Andy Abrahams, saw the stars bring live entertainment to the doorstep of vulnerable people who may not have been able to get out and about for some time, lifting spirits by connecting people with song, joy and laughter.

The show was also streamed live online for residents who couldn’t make it outside and so that friends and families could join their loved ones remotely to share the experience, helping to create magical shared memories when they may not be able to be together physically.

Taking a leaf out of Captain Sir Tom Moore's book, the amazing Hilda Duncombe walked 103 laps of Bartlett's care home in Stone to celebrate her 103rd birthday.

Hilda also set to work writing poetry during the gruelling pandemic isolation, and The Bucks Herald recently published two of her poems, which Hilda hoped would give readers a bit of cheer.

Aylesbury Mosque and local Muslim leaders also stepped up to the plate in support of the NHS, delivering hundreds of meals to hard working Stoke Mandeville Hospital staff.

By the end of April, a mass Covid testing centre had opened in a car park in Aylesbury.

This was followed by smaller testing facilities throughout Aylesbury Vale and Buckinghamshire.

May began with the first tentative easing of lockdown: people were allowed to sunbathe in Aylesbury parks and public spaces and also leave the house to exercise more than once a day.

Towards the back end of the year, Buckinghamshire 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 would be 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.

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'.

Aylesbury 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, provided they stuck 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 relative freedom. But towards the end of August, 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.

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.

In September, total cases across Aylesbury Vale approached 1,000.

On September 8 Matt 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 months 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 Aylesbury Vale and elsewhere had to stick to a 10pm curfew.

In October the new tier restrictions were launched for many in Aylesbury, the mood was complacent as we were placed firmly in the lowest band - medium risk.

Cases also remained comparatively low in Aylesbury Vale.

Later in October, UK Cases skyrocketed with 26,688 people testing positive in just one day in the UK.

On October 31st, a second national lockdown was ordered.

Aylesbury's bars, pubs, restaurants and non essential services were ordered to close November 2020 saw Lockdown 2.

Aylesbury was resigned to a second lockdown with the promise that we would be able to enjoy 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 Bucks Herald 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 Aylesbury and certain other parts of the country.

In December 2020, as soon as Lockdown 2 was over, Aylesbury was slapped in Tier 2 - high risk - restrictions.

This didn't deter many Christmas shoppers, who still flocked to town to spend, spend, spend albeit in nothing like the numbers we would see during a normal festive season.

Aylesbury was initially placed in 'Tier Two lockdown' measures in December, with gyms allowed to remain open as the R number and case rate remained low in Buckinghamshire.

However, Bucks Council Leader Martin Tett warned of complacency. He said a small minority of people were not heeding Government rules.

He said: "I have to tell you that the daily reports that I receive, showing the infection rates over the previous seven days, are indicating a sharp and continuous rise in infection rates across all areas of Buckinghamshire.

"Rates are also rising amongst the over 60-year olds and the percentage of people testing positive for COVID-19 is also rising. I have been meeting with our NHS colleagues who also report that they are now experiencing severe pressure.

"I again must be clear that ‘infection rates’ do not necessarily mean serious illness, nor hospital admissions. Nevertheless, taken collectively the situation is worrying.

"As I have said publicly, whilst very many people are following the rules, a significant minority are not. I have to stress that despite the vaccine now being available in Buckinghamshire, we still only have limited supplies and it will take many months before even the most vulnerable are vaccinated. We have a collective responsibility to each other to help control this horrible virus."

And he was right - Aylesbury and Buckinghamshire was plunged into Tier Three restrictions on December 17.

However in Buckinghamshire, good news was beginning to arrive.

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 80s, 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 in Aylesbury continued to rocket.

On the December 21, Christmas was cancelled as Buckinghamshire was put into Tier Four, the highest possible restrictions.

The new rules also meant all non-essential retail in Aylesbury had to close, as well as gyms and hairdressers.

It also meant that for the people of Aylesbury, along with a large swathe of the UK population in other areas in the country, the Christmas with their families was cancelled.

For many, it was a bitter blow.

In late December Aylesbury Vale had the highest rate of new cases in Buckinghamshire as infections spiralled in our area, typically, at the worst possible time of year.

In January, the doom and gloom continued.

On January 5 we went into the third national lockdown, but it took a while for this to have an impact on case numbers.

Aylesbury's Coronavirus situation continued to deteriorate and in January, schoolchildren were told they would not be returning to school until at least March.

Testing was ramped up to new heights, with a rapid testing facility opened in Aylesbury on February February 3 in a bid to help identify asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 in Buckinghamshire.

But amid the gloom, rays of light broke through as we were once again inspired by acts of kindness from the people of Aylesbury.

Darren, Marcus and James Davis decided to pack in their day jobs and instead dedicated their time to help the vulnerable during the Coronavirus pandemic.

In February, Buckinghamshire’s first large-scale GP led COVID vaccination site opened in Aylesbury at the Buckinghamshire New University.

The vulnerable groups of the Vale were invited to get their jabs.

In March, we crossed the 20,000 vaccinations milestone at Stoke Mandeville Vaccination Centre.

Aylesbury South East Conservatives hailed the “Amazing team effort from everyone Healthwatch Bucks.”

Later that month The Bucks Herald revealed that vaccination numbers had topped 34,388.

County-wide, vaccinations had crossed 210,000, nearly half of the county's adult population.

Dr Sajid Zaib, Clinical Lead of the Stoke Mandeville Stadium Vaccination Centre, said: “We’re really pleased to have reached this milestone with our vaccinations, but there is still lots of work to do as the rollout continues.

“The Stoke Mandeville Stadium Vaccination Centre has been an amazing team effort – from the clinical and non-clinical staff of all the GP practices involved, the support of Buckinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service, Buckinghamshire CCG and the invaluable work of our fantastic volunteers.

"It is a real testament to all their efforts that the rollout is going so well and our site is running so efficiently."

It has been a year like no other and we're not out of the woods yet.

The pandemic has brought out the very best and the very worst in society.

But community spirit shone through brighter than ever before.

We must now hope we never see a year like it again with eyes firmly fixed on calendars and the tantalising prospect of true freedom and a return to normality from June 21st.