Leicester coronavirus outbreak: mayor ‘frustrated’ with ministers

Peter Soulsby says government report is superficial and was ‘cobbled together very hastily’

The government’s lack of communication with Leicester city council about the coronavirus outbreak in the city has been “intensely frustrating”, according to its mayor.

Sir Peter Soulsby’s criticism comes after 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, the Labour mayor said government officials had now instead 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 in total, 2,987 people have tested positive with Covid-19 in the city since the start of the epidemic.

“Frankly, it’s been intensely frustrating,” said Soulsby. “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.”

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.

Quick guide

Will there be a second wave of coronavirus?

Epidemics of infectious diseases behave in different ways but the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed more than 50 million people is regarded as a key example of a pandemic that occurred in multiple waves, with the latter more severe than the first. It has been replicated – albeit more mildly – in subsequent flu pandemics.

How and why multiple-wave outbreaks occur, and how subsequent waves of infection can be prevented, has become a staple of epidemiological modelling studies and pandemic preparation, which have looked at everything from social behaviour and health policy to vaccination and the buildup of community immunity, also known as herd immunity.

Is there evidence of coronavirus coming back in a second wave?

This is being watched very carefully. Without a vaccine, and with no widespread immunity to the new disease, one alarm is being sounded by the experience of Singapore, which has seen a sudden resurgence in infections despite being lauded for its early handling of the outbreak.

Although Singapore instituted a strong contact tracing system for its general population, the disease re-emerged in cramped dormitory accommodation used by thousands of foreign workers with inadequate hygiene facilities and shared canteens.

Singapore’s experience, although very specific, has demonstrated the ability of the disease to come back strongly in places where people are in close proximity and its ability to exploit any weakness in public health regimes set up to counter it.

In June 2020, Beijing suffered from a new cluster of coronavirus cases which caused authorities to re-implement restrictions that CHina had previously been able to lift.

What are experts worried about?

Conventional wisdom among scientists suggests second waves of resistant infections occur after the capacity for treatment and isolation becomes exhausted. In this case the concern is that the social and political consensus supporting lockdowns is being overtaken by public frustration and the urgent need to reopen economies.

The threat declines when susceptibility of the population to the disease falls below a certain threshold or when widespread vaccination becomes available.

In general terms the ratio of susceptible and immune individuals in a population at the end of one wave determines the potential magnitude of a subsequent wave. The worry right now is that with a vaccine still many months away, and the real rate of infection only being guessed at, populations worldwide remain highly vulnerable to both resurgence and subsequent waves.

Peter Beaumont

“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 the health secretary, Matt Hancock, announced there was a local outbreak.

However, 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.”