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“It’s been like riding a boat in the middle of a storm,” says Jack Franklin, a booking agent at The Soundhouse, a 220-person venue in the centre of Leicester. Under normal circumstances, sweaty bodies and late-night drinkers would soon pack the walls as the venue celebrates ten years of bringing live music to the largest city in the East Midlands. Now, Franklin is clambering to save it.
After 108 days on local lockdown The Soundhouse recently hosted its second proper gig in seven months, a sell-out show for 30 socially distanced seated revellers. It was a live band, apparently allowed as guitars, drums and keyboards have been deemed Covid-friendly instruments. “We were told we weren’t allowed wind instruments because they have a greater risk of exposure,” says Franklin.
On June 30, while the rest of the UK was looking forward to the prospect of pubs and restaurants shortly reopening, Leicester was already sliding back into lockdown. Non-essential shops were forced to close, schools shut their doors, groups of six could only meet outdoors and bars and restaurants would remain closed. It was a means of controlling the virus after a month of rising cases. Leicester had an infection rate of 135 per 100,000 people – three times as many as the next highest city – when it was placed on lockdown with 510 cases being confirmed between June 22 and 28, almost double the 276 in the first week of June
For a time these measures worked. In late July, as reported by the Financial Times, the infection rate in Leicester fell to 65 per 100,000. Soon after, on August 3, places of worship, cafes and hairdressers were reopened. Franklin rejoiced, as it also meant pubs could pull pints again, but it didn’t last. Now, as swathes of the UK are being placed in tiered lockdown measures for the foreseeable future, Leicester locals are continuing to ask two questions. How did we get here? And when will it end?
The timings of Leicester’s lockdown might not inspire confidence for areas now facing tier 1, 2 or 3 measures. At 1:04am on June 29, Sir Peter Soulsby, the mayor of Leicester, received an email from Public Health England, suggesting that his city would be placed in lockdown. It was news to him. Not even twelve hours earlier, although rumours of Leicester’s fate were speculated in the press, Shadow Health Secretary and Leicester South MP Jon Ashworth played down the prospects of a local lockdown, despite a month of rising cases in pockets across the city.
At 5pm that same day Matt Hancock was due to announce Leicester’s fate. The announcement eventually came four hours late. From June 30 all non-essential businesses and schools would be closed, and unlike the rest of the country, pubs would not welcome patrons on July 4.
Where these restrictions would apply was a mystery, however. When Hancock made his announcement no official map had been drawn to outline the affected areas. In its place, fake maps quickly circulated on social media, only adding to the confusion. After red lines were drawn around the highest risk areas through the night, finally, a map was circulated to local authorities at 9:40am the next morning, reports the Leicester Mercury.
“The days leading up to Leicester’s lockdown and the days around its introduction were ones of real nervousness and worry for residents,” says Rory Palmer, a former deputy mayor of Leicester and Labour MEP. “That worry and concern hasn’t really gone away.”
When lockdown kicked in the primary goal was to interrupt the transmission chain, says Rachna Vyas. Vyas is the executive director of integration and transformation at the Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland Clinical Commissioning Group, working with local authorities to oversee the delivery of health services in the area.
Throughout the primary lockdown period Vyas and other local authorities relied on government issued data to help monitor fluctuations in cases and how Covid-19 was impacting health services. This included how many people were visiting general practice for Covid-19, how much emergency admissions were increasing and, crucially, how many people were testing positive across the city.
But until June 25, when a data sharing agreement was made with Public Health England, local authorities in Leicester did not have full access to postcode-specific data on people who had been tested. This meant that Covid-19 cases across Leicester were much higher than local authorities estimated. “That’s when everything was thrown into an even higher gear,” says Vyas. “We were quite late in being notified of the data available to us.”
This started by targeting the highest incident areas – the east of Leicester – first by administering doorstep testing, a model that has been emulated in other local lockdown areas such as Bradford. A local messaging campaign was also implemented. This included arranging webinars from local GPs in various languages and using social media to quickly share advice. “People listen to people they trust,” says Vyas. “Messages that come from the government have got to be relevant to your population. People have got to understand what that means for them and their family.”
As transmission rates dropped through July it was evident these measures were working, but what caused a spike in the beginning was hard to pinpoint. Residents live in high-density accommodation, visit pubs and shop at supermarkets, just like in other areas of the UK, and a report from Public Health England also found ‘no obvious source’ behind Leicester’s June outbreak. In the press, it was speculated the high infection rate was caused by overcrowded factories that remained open throughout the primary lockdown as online shopping increased, but with an absence of reason a negative view of Leicester was emerging outside the city.
Boris Johnson blamed Leicester’s surge in cases on “problems getting people to understand” government advice and locals were branded as ‘idiots’ in national newspapers. On June 30, despite travel in, out or within Leicester still being legal, Nottinghamshire Police warned that fines would be issued if Leicester residents travelled to their neighbouring city.
“It felt like the whole UK was looking down their noses at us,” says Marie Chamberlain. In the summer, Chamberlain created the Leicester and Leicestershire Together Facebook group, a small effort to help locals connect and do what she believed the government weren’t – keeping people informed.
Chamberlain lives in Wigston just south of Leicester. Along with all of Leicester Wigston is now a tier 2 lockdown area, where residents can visit pubs but cannot meet socially with friends in any indoor setting or exceed groups of six. It makes little difference to Chamberlain, though. She has been following these exact rules to the letter for months, and her situation has only grown worse.
On October 14, 129 new cases in 24 hours were added to the city’s cumulative toll of 8,248, the highest daily increase since the pandemic began. The reason for this is a relatively simple one, says Vyas. “As a society we’re mixing a lot more and therefore you are seeing the transmission across people in communities,” she says. Local authorities were also learning from past errors. Testing increased in the last 28 days to 2 October where an average of 666 Covid-19 tests a day were carried out.
Test and trace is key to stopping these post-lockdown spikes, says Azeem Majeed, head of the department of primary care and public health at Imperial College London. Right now, says Majeed, test and trace isn’t identifying enough cases or suppressing enough local outbreaks. “If test and trace isn’t revamped we’ll be back to where we were in the beginning,” he says.
Local lockdowns are only as good as the people being trusted to follow them, says Julian Tang, an honorary associate professor in respiratory sciences at the University of Leicester. “Whatever we’re doing hasn’t been enough to get us out of lockdown,” he says. “A curfew, for example, depends on people complying with the concept of the curfew. It doesn’t work if people then start having a party in the street with supermarket bought alcohol.”
Tang believes that now, with over half the country in some form of lockdown, the term ‘local’ doesn’t really apply anymore and a broader plan must be made. “Areas will only come out of lockdown when the whole country is following the restrictions. No city is an island,” says Dr Tang. In its place, he says, a countrywide lockdown may be the only option. “But any restriction you impose may not be enough,” he stresses. “It may not be enough now.”
Despite the gloom Vyas remains optimistic, even in the midst of another government imposed lockdown that seems to be repeating the mistakes of the first. “This whole thing is hinged on relationships. It’s about people rather than processes, and we’ve already got the processes in place and the people to enact them,” she says. “We’re a resilient city, and in times of adversity we’ve shown that we can do it when we work together. That message is stronger than the negative ones.”
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