Leicester’s mayor has hit out at the government’s handling of the Covid-19 outbreak in the city, describing Downing Street’s plans as hastily “cobbled together”.
Sir Peter Soulsby said the government had recommended current restrictions were maintained for a further 14 days while the rest of England enjoyed new freedoms from 4 July on what has been labelled “Super Saturday”.
It would mean bars and restaurants would stay shut as lockdown measures were frozen in the East Midlands city in a bid to quell coronavirus infections, which swelled by nearly 900 in a fortnight.
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, was due to update the Commons on Monday afternoon, after meeting local leaders in the city, but his statement was pushed back to the evening. The home secretary, Priti Patel, said on Sunday the government was considering a localised lockdown in Leicester.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Labour mayor Soulsby said government officials had suggested keeping current lockdown restrictions in place across the city for a further two weeks to control the outbreak.
According to Leicester city council, the latest figures from Public Health England show that 866 new cases of coronavirus were reported in the city in the two weeks up to 23 June. It said that in total 2,987 people had tested positive for Covid-19 in the city since the start of the epidemic.
“Frankly, it’s been intensely frustrating,” Soulsby said. “It was only last Thursday that we finally got some of the data we need but we’re still not getting all of it and it was only at 1.04am that the recommendations for Leicester arrived in my inbox.
“What they’re suggesting is not a return to lockdown, it seems that what they’re suggesting is that we continue the present level of restriction for a further two weeks beyond 4 July.
“I’ve looked at this report and, frankly, it’s obviously been cobbled together very hastily. It’s superficial and its description of Leicester is inaccurate and certainly it does not provide us with the information we need if we are to remain restricted for two weeks longer than the rest of the country.”
As other areas of the country see surges in cases, Keith Neal, the University of Nottingham’s emeritus professor of the epidemiology of infectious diseases, warned that any form of localised lockdown raised the problem of where to draw the line on which areas to include or not.
He said: “One of the biggest problems is deciding who is in the lockdown area and who is not. This needs to be understandable to both the people who are inside and the people on the outside. People on the inside of the lockdown need to understand why they have been included. There would be nothing to stop people on the outside taking further voluntary precautions themselves as individuals if they were worried.
“Defining the specific area will be one of the largest problems. Local authority boundaries can run down the middle of the street with one side in one local authority and the opposite another.
“Urban sprawl has allowed towns and cities to expand resulting in these areas often joining other areas who identify differently and do not see themselves as part of the expanding town or city.”
Claudia Webbe, the Labour MP for Leicester East, also criticised the government’s communication about how the city should tackle the outbreak, and called for a local lockdown.
Speaking on BBC Breakfast, she said: “There are significant worries and significant problems in terms of inequalities and high levels of poverty that I’m concerned about.
“That is the context in which this Covid-19 is operating in. So I’m very concerned, and I really do believe that where the data allows we need to ensure that we engage in processes to protect lives, and I think we need to go into therefore more localised lockdown to protect lives and ensure that we can address this virus.
“The government hasn’t reassured us. Thus far, the messages and the communication from the government have been unclear, and it has been difficult, and I really don’t understand what communities are meant to follow.”
Leicester city council said it received detailed information on the new cases – including the postcodes of those being tested – on 25 June, a week after Hancock announced there was a local outbreak.
The city’s public health director has also raised concerns about the level of information that has been provided to the council to help them pinpoint what has led to the surge in cases.
Ivan Browne told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Interestingly it’s very much around the younger working-age population and predominately towards the east part of our city.
“I don’t think at the moment we’re seeing a single cause or a single smoking gun on this so we need to really try to dig down and find out what is going on, and it’s likely to be a combination of factors.
“Information has been challenging all the way through this. It has definitely been challenging and I think as director of public health we have really been pushing for some time to ask for as complete a data set as possible because that’s how we can really effectively start to challenge these things on the ground.”