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Why has Leicester gone back into lockdown - and could the same thing happen in an Irish town?

Leicester has had one in ten of all confirmed cases of Covid-19 in England in the past week.

coronavirus-tue-jun-30-2020 An NHS public safety message in Leicester. Source: Joe Giddens/PA Images

THE ENGLISH CITY of Leicester is located in the East Midlands and has a population of just over 350,000 people.

In the past week, the city has had one in every 10 cases of Covid-19 diagnosed in England while the seven-day infection rate in Leicester was 135 cases per 100,000 – three times that of the next highest city.

At a time when the rest of England is set to emerge from a range of lockdown measures on Saturday, the city is facing further restrictions being imposed as cases continue to rise. 

As of yesterday, the city had recorded 866 new cases of the coronavirus in the last two weeks. There had been speculation that the stringent measures that were introduced in late March and April would be returning. 

That decision was finally announced on Monday night. 

Local officials had complained at a lack of communication from central government on the extent of the outbreak in recent weeks, as well as the reasons behind the outbreak and how to tackle it.

Nationally, there’s also been criticism of the contact tracing infrastructure in place in Britain to help contain outbreaks and clusters of Covid-19.

At home, Dr Tony Holohan has previously said that clusters of the virus will happen as the country begins to open up and if it came to a situation where there was a cluster in a particular setting public authorities would “make interventions we think are necessary in relation to that”. 

‘These actions are profoundly in the national interest’

It had emerged that Leicester was recording a high number of cases in recent weeks, but officials on the ground criticised the government’s response and say it had hindered efforts to single out a cause for the outbreak. 

City mayor Sir Peter Soulsby told LBC on Monday there was “incredible frustration” in getting figures out of the government “after weeks of asking”, adding that some officials had visited Leicester, “talked to a few people” and had then “cobbled together” a report.

Leicester public health director Ivan Browne was also critical of the level of information given to the city.

He told the BBC’s Today programme: “I don’t think at the moment we’re seeing a single cause or a single smoking gun on this, so we need 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.

After a meeting with city officials on Monday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock made a late address to announce the news measures in the House of Commons.

coronavirus-tue-jun-23-2020 Matt Hancock Source: PA

He said: “These actions are profoundly in the national interest too because it’s in everyone’s interests that we control the virus as locally as possible.

“Local action like this is an important tool in our armoury to deal with outbreaks while we get the country back on its feet.”

He said the measures would be kept under review and would not stay in place “any longer than is necessary”, adding: “We’ll review if we can release any of the measures in two weeks.”

Speaking after the announcement, Mayor Soulsby said: “These measures are stricter than we anticipated but we understand the need for firm action.”

So what will happen under the new restrictions?

coronavirus-tue-jun-30-2020 A city council worker carries rubbish from a coronavirus testing centre at Spinney Hill Park in Leicester Source: PA Images

Residents of Leicester and nearby towns are being told to stay at home unless they need to go on an essential journey. Travel in and out of the city is also being discouraged at this time. 

Two weeks ago, on 15 June, a number of non-essential shops in Leicester and the rest of England were permitted to re-open.

They now must close again.

In the rest of England, bars, restaurants and hairdressers are due to open again on Saturday 4 July. These will not re-open in Leicester on that date.

Schools will also close on Thursday 2 July, except for the children of key workers and vulnerable children.

As well as that, the city council had planned to open libraries and museums but that is now under review. 

Health Secretary Hancock has said that extra testing facilities will be rolled out in the coming days to try get on top of the situation. 

So what now?

Hancock said a range of targeted interventions over the last week or so – including working with factories that saw a spike in cases – had not managed to stem the outbreak.

He told BBC Breakfast: “So we’ve been taking this highly localised approach but unfortunately that targeted action wasn’t working in Leicester and that’s why we have taken this much broader measure.”

Mayor Soulsby was again critical of the government in a press conference yesterday.

He said: “What we said to the Government was, it’s all very well telling us that the figures are high in Leicester.

What we need to know is what’s happening at the community level, what’s happening at the neighbourhood level, what’s happening at the street level, because obviously we’re a very diverse city and a very big city, and it’s only if you have that sort of information you can understand what the overall city figures might amount to.

“We’ve got that data and we’re still trying to work through the mountain of stuff that’s now come through and try to map it and to see where in the community the virus is still active and where it might be spreading.”

He said some colleagues “have had to spend quite a lot of time persuading” contact tracers on the ground to stay in Leicester “as some of them were on occasions seeking to decamp to go and measure elsewhere.”

He said the hospital data had shown who was most affected, adding: “Men have been quite heavily affected particularly in late middle age, elderly people have been hit particularly hard, and BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) communities in general have had somewhat higher rates of admission to hospital than the white community.”

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Overall, he urged people to “stick together” and stay at home to control the spread of the virus.

Earlier, Hancock did not rule out forcing people to stop travelling outside of Leicester but said he hoped locals would heed the new advice.

“On travel, we are recommending against travel unless it is essential but we are not putting that in place in law at this stage,” he said.

“Of course we will if we have to.”

What would happen here?

HSE 982 CMO Dr Tony Holohan Source: Sam Boal

We don’t quite know the answer to this one. 

But the question of what would happen if there was a situation where cases rose significantly in one specific area of the country has been put to chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan before. He has also indicated that if there’s a second wave, we wouldn’t turn to the nationwide lockdown measures that were brought in during March. 

He was specifically asked in late May what would happen in the case of an outbreak in a school and if it would be the case that the school would close down at a local level.

The Chief Medical Officer said: “If that’s the right response at a point in time, then that might be the response exactly. 

All I’m really doing is trying to sort of raise people’s awareness and understanding of the fact that we will have events or circumstances in which we see transmitting of the virus occurring, either in an outbreak or cluster form in particular settings.
We will have to be in a position as quickly as we possibly can to pick that up either locally or nationally, and make interventions we think are necessary in relation to that. 

Dr Holohan emphasised that as Ireland re-opens, it is likely we will see such instances of clusters breaking out. 

He stressed it would be important for the public not to interpret this as that the “whole strategy had failed”. 

An infectious disease specialist, meanwhile, has said that lockdown could be enforced on a regional basis if clusters of coronavirus break out in certain areas.

Professor Sam McConkey said that, while it is unclear where and when clusters of the virus will occur again, putting the country into full lockdown again would not be the best approach.

“We have seen in Milan, when things were really appalling in northern Italy – towns there have a ‘cordon sanitaire’, which is the French word for a sanitary curtain.

“It essentially means there is an area people can’t travel across in the event of an outbreak,” he told RTE’s Today with Sarah McInerney last week.

“That can work and it might be preferable to the whole of the country going back into phase one or phase zero.

I hope we get more finessed or targeted restrictions so maybe people in Clones or Athlone would go back to phase one in the event of a major outbreak but the rest of the country would not.

With reporting from PA

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Sean Murray

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