Special Report: How a coronavirus variant tore through a tiny English island

The Covid-19 UK variant is more contagious, more deadly

and has now been reported in more than 100 countries.

But it first took hold here – on the Isle of Sheppey – a flat, marshy island off the coast of Kent, southeast England.

[Owner of Elmhurst Caravan Park, Henry Cooper]

“Every single person was getting affected by it and on this tiny little island. We've lost a lot of people and a lot of families have really been devastated."

Sheppey is no stranger to contagion.

Britain’s last major outbreak of malaria happened on this island, brought there by troops returning from World War One.

The arrival of the coronavirus variant – B.1.1.7 – was swift and destructive.

In October 2020, a new wave of infections hit the island hard

and soon, the area became Britain’s worst-hit Covid hotspot.

In one part of the island the rate was about nine times the national average.

[Funeral Director Palliser Platt And Sons, Bobby Palliser]

“The last year has been absolutely crazy, something beyond belief I would never have thought it would have happened to me to us to anyone. You know, 50% our numbers were up on deaths and we have been working 18 hours a day to accommodate everything we have to do for this pandemic."

Sheppey was particularly vulnerable because many people work in food distribution centres, care homes or holiday parks – jobs they can’t do from home.

Caravan park owner Henry Cooper watched the disease rip through his family.

“At the time when we tested positive, we didn't know anyone else who had Covid, we were like lepers because we was on our own and then the whole island just exploded with Covid. We're such a close-knit community. It was absolutely terrifying."

Infections rose rapidly nationwide and on October 31st, England’s second lockdown was announced.

[British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson]

"And so, now is the time to take action because there is no alternative. And from Thursday until the start of December, you must stay at home."

Despite lockdown, cases were still surging in Kent and southeast England,

and public health officials couldn’t explain why.

Scientists puzzled from afar,

solving the mystery of the Kent variant was a race against time.

[Head Of Covid-19 Genomics UK, Sharon Peacock]

“One of the things that the virus has taught me is that I can be wrong quite regularly. I have to be quite humble in the face of a virus that we know very little about still, and much of the learning means that we can't simply reflect on what we knew about previous coronaviruses. We are learning about from scratch if you like. So, we have to be careful about saying a particular variant is number one. There may be a variant out there that we haven't even discovered yet."

Although the scientists couldn’t stop the variant’s conquest of Britain, they had become a warning system for the world

with the Isle of Sheppey as its unlikely poster child.

[Owner of Elmhurst Caravan Park, Henry Cooper]

“Well, it is not really something to be proud of is it come from Sheppey that is the most dominant killer in the world you know it's quite sobering to think about things like that.”

[Head Of Covid-19 Genomics UK, Sharon Peacock]

"I think it's inevitable that we will have another virus emerge that is of concern. What I hope is that having learned what we have in this global pandemic, that we will be better prepared to both detect it, contain it and prevent infection from it."

Video Transcript

- The COVID-19 UK variant is more contagious, more deadly, and has now been reported in more than 100 countries. But it first took hold here on the Isle of Sheppey, a flat, marshy island off the coast of Kent in Southeast England.

HENRY COOPER: Every single person was getting affected by it. And on this tiny little island, we've lost a lot of people, and a lot of families have really been devastated.

- Sheppey is no stranger to contagion. Britain's last major outbreak of malaria happened on this island, brought there by troops returning from World War I. The arrival of the coronavirus variant B.1.1.7 was swift and destructive.

In October 2020, a new wave of infections hit the island hard. And soon, the area became Britain's worst-hit COVID hot spot. In one part of the island, the rate was about nine times the national average.

BOBBY PALLISER: The last year has been absolutely crazy, something beyond belief. I would never have thought it would have happened to me, to us, to anyone. 50%, our numbers were up on deaths. And we have been working 18 hours a day to accommodate everything we have to do for this pandemic.

- Sheppey was particularly vulnerable because many people work in food distribution centers, care homes, or holiday parks, jobs they can't do from home. Caravan park owner Henry Cooper watched the disease rip through his family.

HENRY COOPER: At the time, when we tested positive, we didn't know anyone else who had COVID. We thought we was, like, lepers because we was on our own. And then the whole island just exploded with COVID. We're such a close-knit community, so it was absolutely terrifying.

- Infections rose rapidly nationwide. And on October the 31st, England's second lockdown was announced.

BORIS JOHNSON: And so now is the time to take action because there is no alternative.

- Despite lockdown, though, cases were still surging in Kent and Southeast England. And public health officials couldn't explain why. Scientists puzzled from afar. Solving the mystery of the Kent variant was a race against time.

SHARON PEACOCK: One of the things that the virus has taught me is that I can be wrong quite regularly. I have to be quite humble in the face of a virus that we know very little about, still. And much of the learning means that we can't simply reflect on what we knew about previous coronaviruses. We're learning about it from scratch, if you like. So we have to be careful about saying a particular variant is, like, number one. There may be a variant out there that we haven't even discovered yet that's actually more concerning.

- Although the scientists couldn't stop the variants' conquest of Britain, they had become a warning system for the world, with the Isle of Sheppey as its unlikely poster child.

HENRY COOPER: Well, that's not really something to be proud of, is it? Coming from Sheppey, it's the most dominant killer in the world, you know? So it's quite sobering to think about things like that.

SHARON PEACOCK: I think it's inevitable that we will have another virus emerge that's of concern. What I hope is that having learned what we have in this global pandemic, that we'll be better prepared to both detect it, contain it, and prevent infection from it.