In the game of whack-a-mole, the target pops up in one location and, once hammered down, appears immediately somewhere else. The defining features of the exercise are randomness and futility, which makes it an unfortunate metaphor for Boris Johnson to use for his government’s strategy when dealing with local Covid-19 outbreaks.
The re-imposition of lockdown controls on Leicester is the first test of that approach and indications are not encouraging. The mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby, has complained about slow sharing of vital information from central government. It appears to have taken almost two weeks for evidence that the disease was surging in the city to translate into practical action.
Even now it is unclear to what extent the high number of cases in Leicester indicates a discrete spike from exceptional local factors or a high general infection rate made visible by more intense testing. If the whole country is to move safely forwards there has to be some discernment of causes and patterns in occurrence of the virus. It seems there is not yet the infrastructure in place either to collect the necessary data or apply the information it yields with sufficient speed.
Part of the problem is a distinction between cases recorded by NHS hospitals and tests conducted by private-sector providers for the centralised track-and-trace system. Local authorities say the latter data set, processed by commercial labs, is either not reaching them or not providing sufficient granularity to allow even an approximation of real-time monitoring.
In parliament on Wednesday Mr Johnson denied that local government was being fed an incomplete picture, but his record does not invite trust. This is a government that abandoned testing at the start of the pandemic when it should have been accelerating, then double-counted tests to achieve the semblance of reaching an arbitrary target. It is also an administration that has ramped up expectation of a great liberation from lockdown so as to energise economic activity across England, without regard for regional variations in prevalence and ignoring more cautious counsel from many scientists.
Mr Johnson’s stated ambition is for a swift return to “bustle” on the high street – an image almost as inappropriate as whack-a-mole given the requirements of physical distancing. When asked in parliament last week how local authorities should manage sudden throngs of people in popular locations, his reply was that they should “show some guts”. That attitude would not have helped Leicester.
Demographic and socio-economic factors in one of the country’s most ethnically diverse cities might well be an issue in the east Midlands, given the already proven vulnerability of BAME communities. Data analysis indicating potential Covid “hot spots” offers no definitive interpretation. Our view of the local contours of the pandemic is hazy because the national response has been haphazard. Millions of English shoppers and pub-goers are expected to swarm across that uncharted landscape on Saturday to fulfil Mr Johnson’s hopes of a consumer-stimulated economic recovery. Localised returns to lockdown are inevitable as the virus continues to circulate. National government might not be able to eliminate that threat but it can help local authorities to protect themselves promptly. Leicester’s misfortune is to have stress-tested the system and proved it inadequate.