LAST Sunday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced a local lockdown for Leicester that’s now erupted into a major blame game between the city’s Labour mayor Sir Peter Soulsby and Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England.
Then on Monday, launching his ‘Build, Build, Build’ Covid-19 ‘New Deal’ recovery plan, Boris Johnson let the cat out of the bag. For the first time, he admitted: ‘We all know that continued support of the furlough scheme is unsustainable.’
Well, many have known since day one that the 80 per cent pay plan for laid-off workers couldn’t last. But Johnson was also publicly admitting another important point which many also realised from the start: That lockdown was unaffordable and we would have to come out of it some time – whether or not it was working in its stated aim of saving lives.
So the question now was: How could the Government end the lockdown without admitting its policy has been a failure and was not necessary in the first place?
The contrast between Britain’s coronavirus death rate and the rate in countries which have not inflicted lockdowns is an uncomfortable reminder of how stark the situation is for us.
At the time of writing, the rate here is 644 per million, compared to Taiwan’s amazing 0.3 per million and South Korea’s six per million, no doubt due to their immediate commonsense precautionary measures. Even Sweden has a death rate below ours – 528 per million – without its citizens having had to suffer their society being shut down.
No doubt about it, the British government had a PR problem over this glaring anomaly.
What was its solution? Was it to convince the public that their sacrifices had achieved success, but to hint that this success depended on people continuing to be compliant and prepared for local lockdowns if there was a flare-up(an idea that appears to have been fed to the media in recent weeks)? You might well think so.
For soon after the new Leicester lockdown was imposed, Public Health England reported that up to 36 areas in England have ‘suffered a spike in coronavirus cases over the past fortnight.’ And we were warned that more towns and cities could be put back into lockdown if cases rise once restrictions are lifted.
But the reality is that Covid-19 has mainly been in local pockets all along – places such as care homes, hospitals, cramped factories and close-proximity living areas. It has been more prevalent among some ethnic minority communities, among the vulnerable and elderly, and so on.
There is also the fact that more testing – as is now happening – will produce more cases. In Leicester, this appears to be the reason for the coronavirus ‘surge’, claimed to be more than 900 cases in the past two weeks. But as Sir Peter Soulsby has pointed out, the same would be likely to happen if increased tests were carried out in any large UK city.
Leicester’s six reported cases a day in need of hospital care and total deaths to date of 271, out of a UK total of 43,730, does not seem a sufficient acceleration to justify a total lockdown affecting more than 650,000 people.
Arguments over, and confusion around, testing data between Leicester Council and the Government have done little to improve public confidence, but have conveniently deflected attention from what perhaps is the real problem.
It turns out that the Covid-19 cases have mainly occurred in the eastern part of the city, two-thirds populated by ethnic minority communities, some of which are more susceptible to coronavirus. This is the result of several factors, including intergenerational and multi-occupancy households, or poor standards of living and crowded working conditions.
The Guardian has reported that some garment factories in Leicester stayed open as normal throughout the pandemic crisis and ordered workers to report for duty even when they were sick. There have also been allegations that people were forced to work despite high levels of infections in factories, as well as accusations of ‘furlough fraud’.
Employees in a number of factories said there had been no social distancing measures and that bosses had closed operations down only for a few days, if at all. As well as problems with factory conditions, others have suggested that the outbreak gained pace among workers in food processing sites where there were crowded working conditions.
Public Health England found evidence that young men, mainly Asian, between 20 and 40 who work in the city’s garment factories and food processing plants were major vectors of transmission. However, health officials and local politicians appear to have shied away from addressing these local issues and opted to support the singling out of Leicester for this ‘refresher’ lockdown treatment, as a lesson to the rest of us.
None of Leicester’sLabour MPs – Claudia Webbe, Jon Ashworth (the Shadow Health Secretary) and Liz Kendall – has opposed the move, nor do they seem interested in really scrutinising the policy, national or locally.
Sir Peter Soulsby initially expressed his concerns about being kept in the dark by Public Health England and Matt Hancock, but also caved in and accepted the lockdown. He said he understood the need for firm action.
But is this the right sort of firm action to deal with the particular covid-19 issue Leicester has? Sir Peter has promised to ‘play our part in keeping the city safe and healthy’. However, what seems like sweeping issues under the carpet is hardly going to achieve that.
Matt Hancock said the local lockdown is ‘in the best interests of Leicester’. But that is highly questionable. The prospects for the city are grim. A total of 29 educational establishments will now not be open for pupils, except for the children of ‘essential’ workers.
Numerous businesses and shops will close or lose income, so too will many people who have had no Government financial support, increasing their desperation. Unregulated and exploitative businesses – at the heart of the local Covid problem – are going to be the only winners.
The Government needed an experimental local lockdown guinea pig and Leicester fitted the bill. The practicalities mean that it can never work – a number of local businesses have said they will refuse to comply – which will allow ministers to argue that the move was a success or failure, according to their need.
Why local politicians are prepared to let their city pay such a terrible price, while letting the Government come out of lockdown without it appearing that it has failed, we can only speculate.
Author’s Postscript: Despite the local spike in confirmed cases there is no reported increase in pressure on the local hospitals dealing with covid-19 related patients as of the afternoon on July 1st. https://www.leicestermercury.co.uk/news/leicester-news/coronavirus-deaths-leicesters-hospitals-near-4282526 Covid-19 related deaths in Leicester total 399 since the first death in mid March, of which just 7 have been in the week from 24th June to 1st July.