'We've come out fighting' - how 2020 changed lives in Norwich

People in Norwich whose lives have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

People in Norwich whose lives have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. - Credit: Various

What a difference 12 months makes.

Back in January 2020, we were oblivious to what lay ahead and how the coming months would alter our lives significantly.

We've spoken to six people from Norwich on what was happening 12 months ago - and what has changed since the coronavirus pandemic arrived.

Ian Hacon and Chris Carr are bringing back the Zaks caravan. Pic: EDP

Ian Hacon and Chris Carr took over Zaks early in 2020. - Credit: Archant

The restaurant owner 

In January 2020, Chris Carr and Ian Hacon were embarking on a new chapter, having taken over Zaks restaurants in Norwich and Poringland.

Since then, hospitality has been hard-hit, weathering lockdowns, a 10pm curfew and significant restrictions on capacity.

Thankfully, the pair moved quickly on their plans - fearing people had fallen out of love with the brand, they took steps to recapture diners' hearts before the pandemic began.

"We managed to implement a lot before the huge news in March," he said. "We accelerated our business plan during that first lockdown and really built a relationship with customers."

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He said they significantly grew their social media channels in lockdown, from roughly 300 people on Instagram to more than 3,000, and 8,000 to 12,000 on Facebook.

A takeaway service, previously a sideline of the business, became a key focus, with a drive-in scheme proving popular.

"It's been a very challenging year, but it hasn't been all bad news," he said. "We've come out fighting, it's been galvanising."

Last year, they wouldn't have guessed that in 12 months' time they'd be closed. But after taking the decision to "batten down the hatches" at the end of 2020, they will remain shut until early February. 

Mr Carr said their biggest reasons to be grateful were the diners in Norfolk who had supported them, and their team, who had forged stronger bonds as a result of the pandemic.

Wendy Norman, of Norwich, who is shielding from Covid-19. Picture: Wendy Norman

Wendy Norman, who has not been out since last February. - Credit: Wendy Norman

The self-employed, and shielding, business owner

In the early days of 2020, Wendy Norman, from Norwich, had been busy making plans for her business, which provides virtual reception services to private healthcare facilities.

She was optimistic for a busy year. But when the pandemic was announced, things changed. Being immunocompromised, she has not left the house since last February.

Having relied heavily on deliveries and supportive neighbours, she has only had a couple of visits for blood tests.

Her business has seen her through, she said, despite an initial blow when many facilities were forced to close.

"I remember listening to Boris, just sitting there and going cold, going into a blind panic," she said. "I thought I had lost everything I had worked for."

Thankfully, as clinics began to reopen, business picked up. 

This year, she's not making any plans. But she is managing to stay positive, and said about 85pc of the time she is coping well.

What has been tough, though, is frequent reassurances to the public that only those with underlying health conditions may become seriously ill from coronavirus.

"I don't think people realise how much it hurts," she said.

Penny Sheppard, headteacher at Queen's Hill Primary School in Costessey. Picture Bill Smith

Queen's Hill Primary School headteacher Penny Sheppard.

The headteacher 

Penny Sheppard, headteacher at Queen's Hill Primary School in Costessey, spent the year clearing hurdles to ensure children still received an education.

It's seen changes to how children come into school, the introduction of pods and adapting quickly to ever-changing government rules.

She said: "School looks very different: Staff and governor meetings, assemblies and celebrations are all carried out remotely and pupils are in class bubbles and having structured playtimes in designated areas.

"The corridors are now empty, apart from the lunch trays that appear at different times following staggered dinners in classes. Face masks, keeping socially distanced and constantly washing/sanitising hands are now part of our new norm.

"We have learnt that we are more resilient than we realised, that we adapt to constant change in government guidance and circumstances quickly and that we are a creative bunch. We have discovered IT skills we didn’t know we had and a new appreciation for family and family time."

She said the wider school community had become stronger, with people pulling together, and that pupils' love of learning and staff's desire to teach had not waned. 

First bus driver Shane Mitchell.

First bus driver Shane Mitchell. - Credit: Shane Mitchell

The bus driver

This time last year, First bus driver Shane Mitchell was enjoying a busy time at work, largely behind the wheel on services from Norwich to Peterborough.

But as news began to spread from Wuhan, and particularly in the days leading to March 23, passenger numbers began to dwindle - and, when lockdown was announced, disappeared overnight.

"At times you were driving round in an empty bus all day," he said, "down from 30 to 40 people to three or four. It was very, very sudden.

"We reduced ourselves to a next to nothing service, with many of our colleagues furloughed."

Mr Mitchell had a brief stint furloughed, but was keen to stay at work. During 2020, he drove buses carrying turkey giant Bernard Matthews' workers to and from its factory, and First's service from Sprowston to the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH).

Despite the challenges, his experience with passengers was overwhelmingly positive - he said there were no difficulties with people not wearing masks, and said that some of the support had been "quite touching".

"Every day for the start of lockdown I was on the same shifts," he said, "and as you went into Dereham, every day a man would stand outside his house holding a sign saying 'thank you'. He must have learnt the timetable. Little things like that mean a lot."

Paige Mitchell, founder of Elm, with her office companion. Picture: Archant

Paige Mitchell, founder of Elm, with her office companion. Picture: Archant - Credit: Archant

The shop owner

In January, Paige Mitchell, founder of Elm in Lower Goat Lane, had been taking the first steps towards creating and selling ceramics wholesale.

But March saw the arrival of coronavirus and the shutdown of shops deemed to be non-essential, and business owners had to focus on the essentials to get by.

As 2020 unfolded, she said the business, a lifestyle and homeware shop, shifted in nature - online sales, previously a small slice of trade, became crucial.

And, in a positive change, she said: "We were selling mainly plants before, but since lockdown there's been hardly any plants bought. We are selling more gifts all over the UK.

"We wanted the business to be as much about gifts and lifestyle, and more of the design pieces, and we have achieved that."

Relying on postal orders, though, has created more work and long hours for staff - packaging goods safely, organising labels, posting parcels and dealing with inevitable missing or damaged items has been particularly time-consuming.

For 2021, there is a sense of determination to get by - and hope that more breathing room will eventually allow for a return to the goals of early 2020.

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