Leicester, like the rest of England, was looking forward to easing out of lockdown on July 4. Last night those hopes were dashed. The city of 330,000 people found itself in the ignominious position on Monday of being singled out as a hotspot for Covid-19. Leicester, far from tasting further freedoms next weekend, will slip further back into lockdown; the Government’s decision leaving a bitter taste.
Health officials had identified a growing problem in the East Midlands city over the past fortnight, confirmed by widespread testing that showed one in ten people coming back positive for the coronavirus.
But police admitted on Monday they had no idea how to enforce a lockdown in Leicester - stricter than the rest of the county let alone the country - while the local mayor Sir Peter Soulsby railed against the plan, calling it 'cobbled together' and insisting there was 'nothing special' about the spread of the virus in Leicester.
Professor Carl Heneghan, director of Oxford University’s centre for evidence-based medicine, also weighed in, complaining the lockdown in Leicester was 'unnecessary' and 'over the top'. He warned that implementing localised lockdowns was 'unsustainable' in a nation as densely populated as England and urged the health secretary to implement a proper 'track and trace' system of testing.
A Lecistershire police source said: "It is a bit of an unknown how this is going to work. We are waiting to see what is happening. We don't know how it is going to work. We really don't know."
Latest figures showed 866 positive cases for Covid-19 in Leicester in the two weeks to June 23 - some 29 per cent of all 2,987 positive tests since the start of the pandemic.
In the east of the city, in particular in the suburb of North Evington, the problem is thought to be at its worst, a densely-populated community of tightly-packed terraces and former industrial buildings, which has seen a surge in cases.
A walk-in test centre has been set up in the nearby Spinney Park - there, on Monday afternoon, men in army uniform and masks could be seen standing beneath a marquee, taking test samples from nervous-looking residents. This is what a city looks like in the grip of a reviving, killer virus.
The prospect of an extra fortnight of lockdown was met with confused frustration on the city’s streets. Alex Richie, landlord at the The Dove, which is situated just inside the Leicester City Council boundary, said he has spent the last few months renovating the pub and drawing up a new menu in preparation for his grand reopening this month. But the threat of a new lockdown has thrown his plans into disarray - he has had to pause orders on beer and now has no idea when business will return to normal.
“I'm waiting for further orders, basically,” said Mr Richie. “I'm not rushing into opening. My customers and my staff are more important than anything else. There's only one reason that we would go into a further lockdown: [people] not following social distancing guidelines, and people need to learn.”
The possible difficulties of a localised lockdown were evident in the pub geography. Down the road, over the city limit, drinking and dining out will likely be permissible from July 4. It risks a rush from Leicester to surrounding suburbs, pushing Covid-19 into places so far out of reach of the disease.
Mr Richie said “there is a concern” that some of his regulars might just travel a few miles down the road to drink at one of his competitors. “This is the problem - you can say you’re going to force a lockdown, but how are you actually going to implement it? If and when it is imposed, that all needs to be laid out, because otherwise it’s not going to work.”
Just down road in the village of Houghton on the Hill, pubs will in all likelihood be able to open. At the Old Black Horse Inn, which plans to open next week, the barmaid Louise said: “[Pubs] need to open up. We’re a village pub, the landlord and landlady are friends with a lot of people in the village. People are missing not being able to come in.”
The ‘tale of two pubs’ is a sign of just how confusing a local lockdown could become in Leicester.
Two miles away in the more affluent Evington Village, local resident Rosemary Kavanagh, 81, said she had no idea which areas are staying locked down, and said people could easily drive to an ‘open’ area if they want to use a restaurant or pub. She is also sceptical of whether the new rules will be observed - particularly in the park on sunny days.
“The rules have been confusing enough as it is, now I’m not sure where the boundary is,” she said. “I think young men will still be playing football and cricket [in the parks].”
She is particularly worried that her 11-year-old granddaughter, who has recently returned to school after months away, will be forced to return home.
Amit Hansrani, who manages a fish and chip shop in the area, has been opening his restaurant only for a few hours each day, and was looking forward to the easing of lockdown so he could return to a more normal level of income. But now he fears that diners might just drive to a nearby village in search of an open restaurant. “We’re going to lose our custom and we need cash coming in - there’s not a lot we can do.”
Dorreen Barratt, 88, who was out on a shopping trip in the area with two friends, says that any locals frustrated by lockdown have “only got to walk 100 yards up the road … people will ignore the fact they can’t do it here, and they’ll just do it where they can.”
Her 77-year-old friend, Ann, said she is worried that her family - all of whom live outside Leicester’s city limits - will not be able to visit.
In Government circles, the rise of Covid-19 cases in Leicester is being blamed on factors that have created a perfect storm. The city is home to a number of food manufacturing plants while high density households, many housing multi-generational layers of families, is also thought to have contributed.
Public Health England (PHE) produced a report, delivered yesterday to Sir Peter Soulsby - the mayor complained he only received it at just after 1am - that identified an upsurge in cases and a need for a delay on easing of the lockdown.
PHE has been keen to stress that there is no single ‘smoking gun’ that explains the localised outbreak, in the way that cases have been seen in a nightclub in South Korea or a meat processing plant in Germany in recent weeks. “The increase in cases in the area reflects activity in a number of settings in Leicester,” said a PHE source. ”While there have been cases associated with food processing factories and other workplaces, there is evidence of transmission occurring in households meaning we cannot definitely attribute the increase in cases to any one source.”
Food manufacturer Samworth Brothers, which runs a sandwich-making plant in the north of the city, employing 1,500 people, confirmed a 'handful' of cases at its Beaumont Leys site, although the company stressed that numbers are 'small in relation to the size of our business'. It refused to say how many cases there had been and the factory has continued to operate throughout the pandemic. A spokesman added: “Our highest priority is the safety of our colleagues and, as would be expected, we have extremely comprehensive ‘Covid secure’ measures in place.”
The outside of the plant was quiet on Monday afternoon, bar the occasional nervous-looking worker leaving his shift.
The Government is also looking at whether Leicester’s large ethnically diverse community has played a part in advertently spreading the disease with large multigenerational households, especially in the east of the city.
The city has significant Hindu and Muslim populations, and a study based on the 2011 census revealed that one in three residents was born outside the UK. Councillor Ruma Ali was reported saying on Monday that the virus was spreading in areas dominated by ethnic minorities, including her own ward.
She said: “It’s mainly the ethnic minority community that has been affected the most. It has been very hard to follow social distancing. A lot of people live with extended family and in overcrowded homes. A lot of relatives live on the same street and they should still be social distancing.”
Claudia Webbe, the local labour MP for Leicester East, urged a fresh lockdown to protect her constituency. “The Government has failed to protect our communities,” she said yesterday, “and that is why the UK has the worst coronavirus death rate in the world.”