Leicester’s lockdown exposes the flaws in a whack-a-mole strategy

Christopher Furlong via Getty Images

When Shaf Islam checked his phone messages on the morning of June 29, he knew his plans for reopening his business were about to be shattered. Islam, who owns an Indian restaurant in Leicester, had been getting ready to reopen on July 4, spending thousands of pounds on screens, parasols and protective equipment for his staff. But his friends and family were telling him that the city might be pushed back into a lockdown. That evening, health secretary Matt Hancock confirmed the news.
Without knowing exactly what the new measures would entail and how long they would be in place for, Islam had to cancel all table reservations and drink deliveries as, in particular, the beers would expire within a few weeks. “That would have been another 600 to 700 hundred pounds out of pocket,” he says.


Leicester has become the first in the UK to be singled out as a hotspot for Covid-19 and slip back into lockdown. For months the government has made the case for localised tactics to clamp down on flare-ups – an approach dubbed “whack-a-mole” by Boris Johnson – and on May 27 closed a Somerset hospital to new admissions due to a high number of patients with coronavirus. But the confusion over who would enforce a local lockdown, and how, in a city as large as Leicester showed the government’s strategy was flawed and left local authorities and residents with little idea of what to expect next.
Infections in Leicester increased by nearly 950 in the two weeks up until June 24, according to a Public Health England report published on July 1. As of June 27, the city of 330,000 people had an infection rate of 135 new confirmed cases per 100,000 people – ten times the UK-wide average.
But although the government had been aware of an outbreak for the past two weeks – Hancock first mentioned an outbreak on June 18 – Leicester’s mayor Sir Peter Soulsby said the local council struggled to receive postcode-level testing data. “It did take quite some time to get any decent data through to us. It was only actually on the following Thursday [June 25], just after they made the announcement that we began to get some of the data through and begin to get a chance to analyse what lay behind it,” he said in a press briefing on June 30.
On a daily basis the Department of Health and Social Care publishes a UK-wide figure for Covid-19 cases that includes swab tests from hospitals (pillar 1) and those processed by commercial labs for the wider population (pillar 2). But local authorities in England receive the pillar 2 data with a two-week delay and, as a result, are unable to properly assess the situation in their communities or compare the data with other cities or regions. “What is hugely important is you have to know where you’re looking and you have to know those communities really well so that you can then make the appropriate intervention,” said Ivan Browne, director of public health for Leicester, who was also speaking to the press at the City Hall briefing.


While the latest data provides a clearer picture of where in Leicester the virus is still active and might be spreading, the source of the fresh outbreak is proving more difficult to pin down. Public Health England has noted a rise in cases among children and working-age people and is investigating a possible link to the reopening of schools, while a number of “incidents” were reported at food factories and outlets. A recent report by workers’ rights group Labour Behind the Label alleges some clothing factories stayed open as normal during the nationwide lockdown.
On the evening of June 29, Matt Hancock announced that lockdown restrictions in Leicester would need to be extended for at least two weeks, which would see non-essential shops close their doors again the following day. But he didn’t provide much clarity on who was responsible for making or enforcing the decision. Raphael Hogarth, an associate at the Institute for Government and visiting lecturer at City Law School says that the government’s whack-a-mole strategy won’t work if nobody knows what to whack with or who is doing the whacking. “Businesses have been told to close before the enactment of a law that authorises ministers to tell them to close,” he says.
As further local lockdowns cannot be ruled out, the UK government will not only need to explain who will bring in local restrictions but justify why and when. As part of its roadmap to easing national lockdown restrictions, the government had set “five tests” – sufficient NHS capacity, a “sustained and consistent fall” in daily deaths, decreasing infection rate, sufficient testing and PPE supply, and confidence that adjustments would not lead to a second peak.“We need to see something similar for local restrictions, some kind of framework or criteria to guide when local restrictions are needed. That makes life more predictable for residents and businesses, and it also reduces the risk of unfairness,” says Hogarth. Germany and France already publish colour-coded maps comparing the number of confirmed cases and hospital capacity against regional population figures, which serve local authorities to make decisions on, for example, the opening or closing of schools.
Sheila Bird, a bio-statistician at the University of Cambridge, says that nationwide transparency about data from swab tests, hospital admissions, and “outbreak” investigations will be essential so that the public and professionals can be confident about how alerts will be triggered as England emerges from lockdown. “Too little detail is yet in the public domain. It is, however, prudent to have alert-thresholds and intervention-triggers,” she says. “We also need to know rather more about what information the NHS Test, Trace and Isolate system makes available to local public health teams and how often.”
Transparency and consistency will be particularly important as under local lockdowns people living not far from each other will find themselves subject to different restrictions. The restaurant owner Islam already worries that his customers who had their reservations cancelled will be driving to the next town, where restaurants will be allowed to open from July 4. “I think it’s a waste of time just locking down Leicester,” he says. “This is going to affect our takeaway trade. People can now go to a restaurant that is outside the lockdown area and not order the takeaway here. Well, I would if I was fed up with eating takeaway.”
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