Downing Street has been accused of sowing confusion and anxiety in Leicester after imposing the first local lockdown to combat a surge in Covid-19 cases in the city, amid growing concern about how the measures will work.
As part of hardened restrictions, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, announced on Monday night that schools would shut to most children and reopened non-essential shops would be forced to close for at least two weeks in Leicester.
Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats backed the lockdown, but criticised the government’s handling of it and called for clarity over the details.
The measures mean the east Midlands city, where more than 300,000 people live, will be on a different path from the rest of England, which will enjoy new freedoms, including the reopening of pubs and restaurants from 4 July. The relaxation of shielding measures, from 6 July, will also be halted in Leicester. On a fast-moving day of developments on Tuesday:
Police sought to allay concerns that people from Leicester might seek to travel to nearby places, including Nottingham, to escape the lockdown measures.
Downing Street confirmed that businesses forced to shut their doors again would be able to re-furlough their staff from Wednesday if they have used the scheme before.
The city’s Labour mayor hit out at the government, claiming it was too slow to share vital coronavirus testing data with local officials.
The NHS trust running the city’s three acute hospitals was preparing to announce that it was going on red alert in anticipation of an expected wave of seriously ill Covid-19 patients as a result of the rise in infections.
The bishop of Leicester confirmed that no weddings or funerals could take place in church buildings.
Downing Street resisted calls, led by the Labour leader, Sir Kier Starmer, and shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, to hold a press conference on Tuesday to answer questions about the lockdown.
Ashworth said: “The government’s response to the situation in Leicester has left people anxious and confused. We support the government’s decision to reintroduce lockdown restrictions. However, there are a number of outstanding questions about how the government intends to implement these restrictions and get the outbreak back under control.”
The acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, Ed Davey, added that while he supported the lockdown, the government had been “totally unclear”.
However, a source close to Hancock hit back, saying measures had been outlined in parliament and adding: “Labour used to complain that we announced things at press conferences rather than coming to parliament to announce them. I think they are a bit confused about their own position.”
The measures, which will be reviewed in two weeks, will also apply to surrounding areas of the city, including Oadby, a town 3 miles to the south, and the villages of Glenfield and Birstall, 3 miles north.
Speaking to Sky News on Tuesday, Hancock said the government would 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 a legal underpinning”.
The prime minister’s spokesman added later: “The powers to impose lockdowns already exist under the Public Health Control of Disease Act 1984 … The health secretary must sign regulations under this act in order to maintain and reimpose restrictions for Leicester.”
Hancock said that in some cases the local lockdown would be enforced by police. Amid concerns that people might try to travel from Leicester to other areas where lockdown measures are being eased, the Nottinghamshire police chief constable, Craig Guilford, said: “I think most people in Leicester will respect that and it has been put in place for a reason. If we get any intelligence from Leicester, such as a minibus or coach travelling to Nottingham, then we will act accordingly.”
Meanwhile, Leicestershire’s Labour police and crime commissioner, Willy Bach, said police in Leicester were not issued a map of the area affected by the lockdown until “well after the announcement”.
The government’s lockdown was prompted by a rise in local infections, with Leicester accounting for one in 10 positive cases in the country in the past week. Leicester’s mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby, claimed Downing Street and Public Health England (PHE) had been too slow to share testing data, which local leaders had been trying to obtain for weeks.
“I wish they had taken a more speedy decision rather than leaving it 11 days from the secretary of state’s first announcement,” he said. “That’s a long gap, and a long time for the virus to spread.”
University Hospitals of Leicester NHS trust, which runs the city’s three acute hospitals, is going on red alert in anticipation of an expected wave of Covid-19 patients despite seeing only “a slight increase” in the number of patients admitted in the last few days. Of the 80 people it was treating for Covid-19 on Tuesday, only “a handful” were recent arrivals, and the total number of inpatients with the disease has remained steady since the start of June.
However, the trust is implementing its plans to deal with what may soon become an increase in the number of people needing to be cared for in an intensive care unit, high dependency unit or ward.
Schools in Leicester were taking a pragmatic approach to the order to close. The Lionheart academies trust, which includes 12 primary and secondary schools in and around the affected area, closed all of them from Tuesday, two days before the deadline.