Britain’s first local lockdown has been imposed on Leicester after a surge in Covid-19 cases, with schools and shops to close and the opening of pubs cancelled.
Several northern towns are now causing alarm to health officials, with Labour demanding intensive testing and distribution of facemasks to prevent other cities following Leicester into lockdown.
Officials described Leicester as a “tinderbox” for coronavirus cases, with rates three times that of the town with the next highest rate. Intensive testing has found 10 per cent coming back positive in the city, five times the national rate. This is seen as a clear sign of large numbers of undetected cases.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, told people in Leicester to “stay at home as much as you can” and recommended against “all but essential travel” to and from the city.
“We’ve decided that from tomorrow, non-essential retail will have to close and as children have been particularly impacted by this outbreak, schools will also need to close from Thursday, staying open for vulnerable children and children of critical workers as they did throughout,” he said. “Unfortunately, the clinical advice is that the relaxation of shielding measures due on July 4 cannot now take place in Leicester.”
He added: “The more people follow these rules in Leicester, the faster we will get control of this virus, and get Leicester back to normal. These actions are also profoundly in the national interest. Because it’s in everyone’s interests that we control the virus as locally as possible.”
Mr Hancock has also said that the local lockdown will be enforced by police amid fears over compliance. He told Sky News: “We will be bringing forward a legal change very shortly, in the next couple of days, because some of the measures that we’ve unfortunately had to take in Leicester will require legal underpinning.”
Nadine Dorries, the health minister, said decisions over the lockdown’s boundary would be taken by health officials and local council leaders using data on the rates of infection on individual streets.
Boris Johnson signed off three restrictions on Leicester and some surrounding areas after a meeting of the coronavirus operations committee, attended by ministers including Mr Hancock, Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, and Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, as well as Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, and Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser.
Pubs and restaurants in Leicester will not open on Saturday, as they will in the rest of England, with further easing of lockdown put back by at least two weeks. Non-essential retail will also be closed from tomorrow, taking the city back to where it was before June 15. Changes to shielding rules have also been delayed, meaning that clinically vulnerable people will have to stay isolated at home for longer.
Schools will be shut to all except vulnerable children and those of key workers from Thursday, taking Leicester back to where the rest of the country was in May.
Implementation of the changes was still being finalised last night but local leaders remain unconvinced that they are needed.
Government figures show 135 cases of coronavirus per 100,000 people in Leicester, triple the rate of Bradford, the town with the next highest rate. Barnsley, Rochdale and Oldham also have high rates, and while officials stress that they are not about to be locked down, concern is mounting in government about poorer towns in the north and Midlands with large minority populations.
Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary and the MP for Leicester South, said: “We have to do whatever is needed to keep people safe, so if this is what that means, I would support it. But we need to know what the government is doing to support Leicester and other cities with similar demographics which are running similar risks. They need more testing and more resources — for example the government could give everyone facemasks.”
Anneliese Dodds, Labour’s shadow chancellor, said that other cities would be similarly hit if the government did not introduce a functioning contact tracing system. While Jeremy Hunt, the chairman of the Commons health select committee, said events in Leicester were a “necessary puncturing of elation” and proved “there are going to be times when we have to go into reverse gear”.
Sir Peter Soulsby, the mayor of Leicester, accused ministers of imposing fresh restrictions based on data that “doesn’t add up”. Sir Peter said that he did not “have a clue” about how closing shops and delaying opening pubs and restaurants would operate as he warned that residents would simply travel to nearby towns for a drink or a haircut.
Mr Hancock tried to persuade Sir Peter of the need for local restrictions in a call yesterday in which the mayor was given data that had led public health officials to conclude that the city was a “dry tinderbox”.
Later Sir Peter said: “It just doesn’t add up. Deaths have dramatically reduced and hospital admissions are below ten a day.”
He said the government had shown him “very elaborate, opaque graphs that were far from convincing”. He said: “I remain very, very sceptical. If they had convinced me there was an issue I would be the first one calling for measures to control it.”
While officials had said that action would be locally led, Sir Peter said ministers had made up their minds about a course of action and made it clear they had the powers to enforce it. “They are determined to press ahead with restrictions in Leicester but I am very sceptical about the data they produced.”
Sir Peter said he would encourage people to co-operate with the new restrictions and welcomed offers of more testing and extra support for businesses that could not open.
He warned ministers: “A lot of people will be irritated, a lot of people will be puzzled and others quite angry, particularly businesses that were opening.”
The government was finalising implementation and communication of the changes last night but sources said they were confident people would keep to local lockdown restrictions given the high compliance with national measures, although Sir Peter said: “I haven’t got a clue as to how this will work in practice.”
No travel restrictions have been placed on people living in Leicester and Sir Peter said that if people wanted to go to a pub “people could drive to Market Harborough, or visit a friend in Birmingham to have their hair cut”.
Asked if he thought many would, he said: “It depends on how long the restrictions are extended, but it won’t be long before people think, ‘I’m going’.”
Claudia Webbe, the Labour MP for Leicester East, is backing local action. She told Times Radio: “I feel that we need to follow the data and introduce the necessary lockdown if that’s what the data is indicating because there’s nothing more important than protecting lives and keeping people safe. And therefore we can’t delay.”
Liz Kendall, the Labour MP for Leicester West, said that lessons must be learnt from the handling of the Leicester outbreak. She tweeted that the government had been “too slow getting the council even basic postcode data which is essential to tackling the problem”.
“Over [the] last few days there have been off-the-record briefings leaving people anxious and confused,” she wrote. “These issues must be addressed because this won’t be the last local outbreak and we need a faster and clearer strategy to grip problems.”
Mr Ashworth said: “It’s disappointing that people in Leicester had to read about this via anonymous briefings more than a week after concerns were first raised, when what they need is clarity and urgency from the government to give them confidence in how this is being handled.”
Brendan Wren, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the use of local testing data to spot outbreaks was long overdue.
Professor Wren said: “It is imperative we continue to test, track and trace to determine the reservoirs and routes of transmission of Covid-19. This will provide the underlying data for rational decision-making regarding coming out of lockdown and when it may be reintroduced temporarily to stem outbreaks.”