Why Leicester? It is a question that has frustrated residents, and puzzled local officials ever since the East Midlands town became the first in England to be forced into a local lockdown as part of a new approach by Westminster to contain Covid-19.
When the rest of the country was emerging from national lockdown in June, the former industrial powerhouse was an outlier with high numbers of confirmed Covid-19 cases. The targeted local measures imposed on the city were initially successful, and transmission of the disease was reduced dramatically over the course of a few weeks.
But in September, the number of cases bounced back up, raising questions over the sustainability and effectiveness of local lockdowns. Understanding what happened in Leicester could help other towns living with restrictions battle the virus more effectively.
A quarter of the population of the UK is now under varying degrees of restriction designed to contain local outbreaks of the virus, in addition to England-wide measures introduced last week to limit social interaction. On the Thursday, Boris Johnson’s government extended stricter rules, including a ban on different households meeting, to Liverpool in the north-west and Middlesbrough and Hartlepool in the north-east.
With the number of cases continuing to rise in many of the towns and cities where stricter rules have already been applied and concerns around whether the public is observing the rules, the government last week introduced hefty fines for breaches.
When Leicester went into local lockdown, the official coronavirus infection rate was 135 cases per 100,000 people. There was speculation that the high infection rate may have been caused by the overcrowded textile workshops in the city, although there was no proof, and local restrictions included closing all non-essential businesses.
By late July, after less than a month of shutdown, combined with local authorities pursuing a proactive policy on testing, the infection rate had fallen to 65 per 100,000 — low enough to allow some businesses to reopen. In August, the rates dropped further to 25.4 per 100,000.
However, Ivan Browne, director of public health in the city, pointed out that the number of Covid cases had been falling for 11 consecutive days before the lockdown was imposed, so it was not clear to what extent the measures contributed to the fall. “That’s the million-dollar question. We don’t know what it would have looked like if we hadn’t done it in Leicester,” he said.
“Remember Leicester was in that higher position on its own for quite some time, so we were all starting to ask ‘why?” he added. “It is not just a why Leicester question now. It’s why Blackburn, why Oldham, why everywhere?”
Finding an answer became more urgent when rates jumped up again. “Suddenly on September 1, it just went bang,” said Mr Browne. “I was panicking wondering what on earth is going on and was trying to work out what it was. Was it bank holiday? Was it ‘eat out to help out’? he added, referring to the government initiative to encourage people to support struggling restaurants.
“Then I looked at the national picture and I realised that everywhere else went bang at exactly the same time,” he said, wondering whether the change came from a premature feeling of liberation as a measure of normality began to return.
The journey might have been smoother if Westminster had worked more closely with officials on the ground, according to a report commissioned by the government into lessons learnt in Leicester, written by Mary Ney non-executive director at the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government.
Dame Mary found that officials in the city were convinced that if they had greater access to data on testing, and powers to organise contact tracing and focus interventions on community hotspots, local responses to virus outbreaks could prove far more effective.
For example, once local officials in Leicester had better access to national testing data, they found that household mixing rather than the textile industry was the main driver of transmission in the city. Household mixing is still banned.
“It has been a major failing in the way the government has addressed this — to seek to centralise the whole process and fail to recognise and value the resources of us here. You get a similar story throughout the land,” said Peter Soulsby, mayor of Leicester.
This complaint was echoed this week when Mr Johnson introduced new measures without first consulting parliament — or, in many cases, the local authorities affected.
“To be clear: the messaging from the government today represents disregard for local expertise, local knowledge and local needs,” Andy Peston, the mayor of Middlesbrough fumed on Twitter on Thursday, after his town fell under the new rules.
As criticism of the government strategy has grown from all sides, public resentment of the rules has been growing, too.
Priya Thamotheram, who runs the community centre in Highfields, one of Leicester’s poorest and most densely populated neighbourhoods, said it had been difficult for people who had been cooped up for months during the national lockdown to maintain compliance. “People were locked away. They don’t have the wherewithal here to go into a back garden of any size,” he said.
Mr Thamotheram said there was also confusion about what is and is not permissible, citing the prime minister’s incorrect response this week — for which he later apologised — to a parliamentary question about the government’s most recent restrictions. “When even Johnson gets his basic messaging wrong and has to apologise, it’s understandable that people in areas like this are unsure,” he said.
The rate of infection in Leicester has dropped again in recent days to below 100 per 100,000. As elsewhere in the country, the mortality rate is also much lower than at the peak of the pandemic.
However, Sir Peter stressed that if officials had had better access to detailed information on testing, with postcodes and addresses to enable them to reach the worst-hit zones, the outbreak in Leicester could have been suppressed much faster.
“Although it has got a bit better it has remained and even now remains an incredible frustration to us that we have never actually had that on a systematic and timely basis,” he said.
Mr Browne said there was an urgent need for central government to co-ordinate more with local authorities, who have far more knowledge of their communities.
“Somehow it is not clicking together and operating as a national, regional, local system. These different elements, when they come together they really kind of rub and scrape against each other rather than fitting into place,” he said.
“Covid has writ large some of the challenges we face more generally.
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