Leicester will endure England’s first local lockdown with schools shutting for most children and shops forced to close as restrictions are strengthened and continued for two weeks in a bid to combat a surge in Covid-19 cases, health secretary Matt Hancock has announced.
Non-essential retail stores will close from Tuesday with schools shut to all but a small group of children from Thursday in a series of moves to quell coronavirus infections, which swelled by nearly 900 in a fortnight.
It means the city of more than 300,000 people will have to wait while the rest of England enjoys new freedoms, including the reopening of pubs and restaurants, from 4 July on what has been labelled “Super Saturday”.
The move came after Hancock met with local leaders in Leicester on Monday afternoon to discuss the plans, followed by Boris Johnson chairing a cross-government Covid operations committee. Leicester’s Labour mayor earlier hit out at the government’s handling of the outbreak in the city, describing Downing Street’s plans as hastily “cobbled together”.
Addressing the Commons in an unusual evening statement – which was delayed by several hours – Hancock told MPs: “Given the growing outbreak in Leicester, we cannot recommend that the easing of the national lockdown, set to take place on the fourth of July, happens in Leicester.
“Having taken clinical advice on the actions necessary, and having discussed them with the local team in Leicester and Leicestershire, we’ve made some difficult – but important – decisions.
“We’ve decided that from tomorrow [Tuesday], non-essential retail will have to close and, as children have been particularly impacted by this outbreak, schools will also need to close from Thursday, staying open for vulnerable children and children of critical workers as they did throughout.
“Unfortunately, the clinical advice is that the relaxation of shielding measures due on the sixth of July cannot now take place in Leicester. We recommend to people in Leicester, stay at home as much as you can. And we recommend against all but essential travel to, from and within Leicester.
“We’ll monitor closely adherence to social distancing rules and we’ll take further steps if that’s what’s necessary.”
The local measures would be kept under review, he said, adding that they would not be imposed for any longer than necessary. They will be reviewed in two weeks’ time, he said.
The measures – which will continue until at least mid-July – will also apply to the surrounding areas of the city, including Oadby, a town three miles south, the villages of Glenfield and Birstall, three miles north.
While cases have fallen across the country, in Leicester they have continued to rise, Hancock said. “The seven-day infection rate in Leicester is 135 cases per 100,000 people which is three times higher than the next highest city. Leicester accounts for around 10 per cent of all positive cases in the country over the past week. And admissions to hospital are between six and 10 per day rather than around one a day at other Trusts.”
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth, who represents Leicester South, said he supported an extension of lockdown measures in the city but pressed Hancock on what powers the government had to enforce them. In response, the health secretary said: “…they will be brought forward with a statutory instrument very shortly and I absolutely commit to keeping the House updated on the two week review.”
Earlier on Monday, the prime minister’s official spokesman said the government has powers under the Coronavirus Act. Local authorities and Public Health England can also impose temporary closures of public spaces, businesses and venues, the spokesman added.
Reacting to Hancock’s statement, the city’s mayor Sir Peter Soulsby – who had earlier hit out at Downing Street’s handling of the outbreak – told BBC Radio Leicester: “They’ve gone further than we anticipated they might. They are clearly determined to start with the maximum, as it were, to see how it works and then perhaps to use the learning from this in other areas I have no doubt will follow.
“I can understand it from their perspective – they are entirely convinced that the level of the transmission of the disease in Leicester is at a higher level than I think the figures show.
“Nonetheless I can understand why they want to err on the safe side… I can see where they’re coming from even though I still have some scepticism about the figures that led them to this.”
Nick Rushton, the leader of Leicestershire County Council, added: “Clearly coronavirus does not adhere to lines on a map. And although county rates are below the national and regional averages, we can’t be complacent and it makes sense to step up restrictions in areas closer to the city.
“This is the first localised lockdown on this scale and undoubtedly there will be issues to iron out. I understand this is disappointing news for residents, parents of schoolchildren and businesses when most of the country is opening back up but it’s crucial that people follow the latest advice.”
Liz Kendall, Labour MP for Leicester West, tweeted: “I’m extremely concerned about children missing school & local businesses & jobs. But if we don’t bring infection rates down it will be worse for us all in the long run. We can and we will beat this virus by working together. I urge the Government to ensure Leicester gets all the resources we need including more testing kits & facilities, promoting health messages in all languages & more inspections/support in workplaces, if that is required.”
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.
On Sunday, the home secretary, Priti Patel, said on Sunday the government was considering a localised lockdown in Leicester. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson said on Monday that the government was “concerned” about Leicester.
Soulsby described the government’s approach to the city’s outbreak as “intensely frustrating” earlier on Monday. “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,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday. “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 earlier 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.
“…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.”